A few weeks ago I was in a nail salon getting my nails done, a real treat after not having them done for over a year due to the pandemic. To my surprise in the nail salon with me were three inner city teachers (one elementary teacher, and two high school teachers) getting their nails done for a girls vacation trip they were about to take. I introduced myself and told them about the work on family and community engagement that I was doing at the Center for Innovative Education. It’s not often that I get to meet three black teachers in a non-school setting. I curious to hear their thoughts about the importance of more deeply involving parents in the decision of whether to hold kids back or not for the upcoming school year due to learning loss. I explained that with the pandemic and remote learning, I felt that parents held important information about their children’s needs and well-being that the school could not possibly know. I was shocked by their responses, with the exception of the elementary school teacher who agreed with me, the two high school teachers voiced that they thought it would be a “waste of time” because in their experience, “parents are the problem”, and felt that many parents were clueless about what their children had done, or not done, this past school year. I disagree.
Times have changed, and we have all been changed by the pandemic and its effects. Words and actions involving “trust” and “truth” have become loaded in our country. It is imperative that schools work to build strong, or even stronger partnerships with parents to show how much they care about student well-being and success. This is especially true when it comes to making decisions about having, or not having, a child repeat a grade for the upcoming school year. Pre-pandemic research shows there are important pros and cons to consider when making the decision to hold children back a grade. According to Bryan Hancock, one of the authors of a McKinsey & Co. study, “When students get behind in school, if not corrected, it risks lowering their potential earnings for the rest of their lives.” On the other hand, former education secretary John B. King., now president of Education Trust, a research and advocacy group focused on equity issues stated, "The research on grade retention as it’s called, or holding students back, suggests that it can be pretty harmful to students’ overall academic progress, and students who are retained are more likely to drop out, they often see a psychological toll to being retained.”
It’s clear that the decision to hold a child back a grade is not to be taken lightly and could have lifelong implications for a child. Unfortunately, in the past this decision was often made by teachers and administrators without consulting with parents, especially parents in under-resourced schools serving Black and brown children. In a March 2021 poll by the National Parents Union, 63 percent of parents polled said “they wanted their schools to let them decide whether to move their children to the next grade.” And now, many states have legislators making the decision with laws that prevent children from being promoted to the next grade if they aren’t showing grade-level reading skills. Parents are now poised to exert more influence on promotion decisions.
While increased parent involvement in educational decisions might pose a challenge for some schools and teachers, it also provides them with an opportunity to explore new and creative avenues to partner with parents. I feel it all starts with improving communication and learning as much as possible about the student and their family situation. If teachers wait until parent/ teacher night, or the parent /teacher conference to have their first communication with parents they may have already lost the opportunity to build a meaningful and trusting relationship with the parent. It’s important that teachers reach out to parents, in person if possible, or even via a survey, to ask parent about their children. The survey should include questions about: What do parents see as their child strengths and weaknesses? What are they most concerned about when it comes to their child and the upcoming school year? Is there anything about their family culture or traditions that might be helpful for the teacher to know? The survey should ask about the best way and time for the teacher to reach parents (and vice versa) and provide several options. If teachers operate in both words and actions from the belief that all parents, regardless of their current circumstances, have the capacity to meaningfully contribute to their child’s educational experience, parents will feel this, and likely be more willing to provide teachers with valuable insight that can improve the teacher’s ability to meaningfully educate that child.
Parents and teachers both hold important information about what each individual student needs to be successful. A teacher may not know that a student who seems to be doing well and is on track for the next grade has suffered the death of a close family member, or that another student is experiencing serious mental health issues that hinders their ability to leave their room or to socially connect with their peers. A parent may not know that their child was MIA for some of the school year because they were front line workers and could not directly supervise their child’s remote learning. The situations and possibilities are endless, but if teachers and parents work in partnership, all of the educational decisions that are made will be stronger and more likely to succeed.