Can states help parents get un-muddled?

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EdNavigator’s new report, Muddled, describes how schools are providing confusing information to parents, and makes recommendations for how parents can be provided with better information. But while the report focuses on activities at the school level, we got to wondering: Is there a potential role for states in helping to improve communication to parents? We think the answer is yes—and we have some ideas for how states might play a constructive role in solving this problem.

In thinking about the right role for states in this work, we are keenly aware of Rick Hess’s admonition that policy can make people do things, but it can’t make them do those things well—and communicating with parents already suffers from being a box schools have to check. So whether or not we’re really at the end of education policy, we’re not at a point where policy is the solution to this problem. But this problem is not best solved by dozens or hundreds of districts in a state going it alone.

State boards of education and chief state school officers have substantial power to place focus and attention on issues that matter. In some states, task forces have been used very effectively to study issues in ways that ultimately led to changed behavior. In the case of communicating student progress, EdNavigator has argued from a very small sample size that there are some practices that can be improved. So how powerful would it be if a state really studied this issue in depth? It’s easy to imagine states convening a group of educators and parents to map what communication parents are actually receiving—and then study what works and what doesn’t.

Federal law actually requires school districts to have parental involvement policies, but are districts actively working to study how those policies are working? Are they then amending the policies to reflect best practices in communicating to parents? If not, the state can both light a fire under districts to do so and provide useful guidance on how to do so in a meaningful way.

Indeed, one of the first things such a task force could look at is just how many ways schools communicate with parents. Between emails, texts, social media updates, and mailed papers, parents may feel inundated with materials. Even if they could understand all of them individually—and as Muddled points out, they frequently can’t—the sheer volume may be daunting to parents, causing them to tune out information that turns out to be important. Getting educators and parents to talk about the right amount of communication and the forms in which it should come might be a useful start.

Beyond that, states could play a valuable role in helping to design individual communications that actually make sense. Some states have made important headway in redesigning their school report cards; there’s no reason they can’t do the same in helping districts and schools redesign student report cards (which too often don’t tell parents what they need to know). Different schools want to emphasize different information, so a state might design several templates to reflect different approaches. But if all of the templates were thoughtfully co-created by educators and parents, chances are they’d get used. And over time, states could learn from each other and adopt the best ideas from other templates.

Another disconnect noted in Muddled is that assessment scores and course grades often don’t line up. That’s not a unique revelation, but the key point of Muddled is that nobody is explaining to parents what these potential disconnects mean. And indeed, schools aren’t even presenting that information together; parents may get their child’s assessment scores over the spring or summer in a manner totally disconnected from report cards.

So what if schools want to present that information together and include last spring’s standardized test scores on the next year’s report card? Shouldn’t educators and parents at least consider the possibility that information now distributed separately should be combined? And if they want that, doesn’t the state have a critical role to play, given that it controls the contract for the test vendor? We think this might be a useful change in practice because of some of the conversations it might instigate between teachers and parents:

  • “Allyson did really well on last year’s math test. So while I’m a little worried that she’s off to a slow start with a C this fall, I think if she works a little harder she’ll catch right up.”
  • “Alyssa has an A and seems to be off to a good start. But she did not do well on last year’s state test, and I’m concerned about her base knowledge. We’re coming up to some units that build on content that it doesn’t appear she mastered last year, so I’m going to want her to do some extra work to be prepared.”
  • “Alisa has an A right now. But she has never done well on state standardized tests because our school has low expectations and misleads parents about how well their children are doing.”

Now maybe it doesn’t seem plausible that any of these conversations will actually happen—but that’s another place where the state can have an impact. State education agencies often have an important role in teacher preparation and professional development, and can influence how well prepared teachers are to have these kinds of conversations with parents. While schools can and should do a better job of designing their mass communications, in many instances the right result of a communication is for parents to have an individual follow-up conversation with a teacher or administrator about their child. States can create conditions in which teachers and administrators are more likely to have the ability to handle those conversations with the skill they require.

Maybe the state convenes a group to discuss these issues, maybe it launches some pilots, or maybe it just holds some hearings to bring focus to the issue. The right approach will depend on state context and capacity. But states can play a role in calling attention to the need for better parent communication, and in creating the capacity to actually have better parent communication.

Yes, maybe in the end some of that work will end up leading to policy change. But at least it would be policy change co-designed with educators and parents through thoughtful engagement. Improving school-to-parent communication is an activity that policy cannot produce alone. But if there are policy barriers or opportunities identified by a deeper study of the issue, then states should support educators and parents by making the changes needed to help them out.

Tim Daly is a founding partner at EdNavigator. Elliot Regenstein is a partner at Foresight Law and Policy.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.