Q&A with Arne Duncan: Building Our Kids’ Dream Team

When schools and families join forces they form a dream team for supporting a child’s education. We caught up with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during a bus tour he took across the South, to discuss lessons he has learned on the best ways to build strong partnerships between parents and schools. Secretary Duncan met with Tennessee educators and parents this week as part of his Partners in Progress back-to-school bus tour.

Arne Duncan shakes a parents hand before a town hall meeting at Oliver Middle School in Nashville.

Arne Duncan shakes a parent’s hand before a town hall meeting at Oliver Middle School in Nashville.

Classroom Chronicles: What can schools and teachers do to involve the parents and families of their students?

Duncan: Great teachers and principals make a huge difference, but they can’t do it by themselves. We know that parents who play an active role in their children’s education – at home, at school, and in the community – have a tremendous impact on factors like school readiness, motivation to learn, and study skills, as well as on high school graduation rates and college readiness.

There’s no easy answer for how to best involve parents, and many states and school districts are wrestling with how to build and sustain effective family engagement. We know principals and teachers want to better and more systemically engage parents, but often feel unprepared, while too many times parents face barriers or don’t know where to start. The answer will always depend on the situation, but we know there are some best practices, like home visits and phone calls, collaborating with parents in teams, providing concrete resources that can help a parent understand what a child is learning and how to best support him or her, and hiring dedicated staff to reach out to parents.

Technology can also connect parents to what’s happening in their child’s classroom and help them build on that at home. For example, I recently saw a tool that tees up suggested questions or activities for parents to use after school with their kids that reinforced the lessons covered that day in a real-world context. That’s simple, but it’s exciting—it provides a way for parents to engage with their kids about school and make the material feel more relevant.

Ultimately, I want all parents to be real partners in education with their children’s teachers, from cradle to career. In this partnership, students and parents should feel connected—and teachers should feel supported.

Classroom Chronicles: Why is it important for schools and families to have a strong partnership?

Duncan: We know that increasing parent involvement is key to improving schools and communities across the country. As we work to drive down drop-out rates and increase graduation and college completion rates, parents have an important role to play.

Students at Brick Church Prep greet Arne Duncan during a visit this spring.

Students at Brick Church Prep greet Arne Duncan during a visit this spring.

Over 50 years of research links the various roles that families play in a child’s education—as supporters of learning, encour­agers of grit and determination, models of lifelong learning, and advocates of proper programming and placements for their child—with indicators of student achievement, including student grades, achievement test scores, lower drop-out rates, students’ sense of their ability, and students’ beliefs about the importance of education.

At the U.S. Education Department, we are learning about programs that are already making a difference. We’ve identified a number of meaningful outcomes for family-school partnerships, like creating school cultures that welcome families’ involvement and empowering parents to encourage their child, monitor their child’s time and behavior, and advocate for improved learning opportunities for their children and schools.

Engaged parents can strengthen communities, encourage fellow parents to get involved and inform them about important issues, mentor and tutor students, and demonstrate through their actions how much they value their children’s education – all reinforcing the hard work that teachers are doing in the classroom.

Classroom Chronicles: What are some great ideas for effective parent engagement you’ve seen as you have traveled around the country?

Duncan: Some of the best ideas I’ve seen are interactive and relational – building mutual trust  – as well as linked to learning. When parents and teachers move into a relationship where they can be partners in how to best meet a child’s academic, social, emotional and physical needs, that’s when a student really benefits. And in many of the most successful models, there has been financial investment and intentional capacity-building effort that is integrated into multiple structures, like training and professional development, teaching and learning, and community collaboration.

Family engagement looks different in different communities. On our website, we offer a few case studies of current efforts that can serve as models for others: The first looks at Stanton Elementary School in Washington, D.C., which has successfully implemented two strategies: home visits and academic parent–teacher teams. The second case looks at Boston Public Schools, where the Office of Family and Student Engagement builds capacity for partnership among both parents and educators through their Parent Academy and school-based Family-Community Outreach Coordinators. The third example describes California’s “First 5 Santa Clara,” a county-wide effort to support the healthy development of its youngest residents through community-based Family Resource Centers and pre-kindergarten family programming.

Classroom Chronicles: If families want to get more involved in their child’s education, where is a good place to start?

Duncan: If there is only one thing parents can do, it would be to make education a priority in their home. And there a number of concrete steps every parent could take:

  • Talk with your child – ask them about their day, what they learned, and if they’ve done their homework. Show that you think education is important.
  • Get to know your child’s teacher and what they expect – attend parent-teacher conferences, see what your child is studying, and ask questions, like how does the teacher measure progress and how can I as a parent help my child meet their expectations. National PTA has made available state-specific guides that explain what higher standards mean in those states like Tennessee that are working hard at reform. They’ve also developed parent guides that give a broad sense of what their children ought to know and be able to do at various grade levels, all available at www.pta.org.
  • Work with your school community – volunteer to help with projects or events, support those who serve as tutors and mentors, and ask your school and fellow parents how we can all be partners in helping our children be college and career ready.

Parents will always be a child’s first and most important teacher. But parents can serve in at a variety of roles: partners in learning; models of lifelong learning; advocates who push for better schools; and decision-makers who choose the best option for their children.

As a father of two children in public school, I know it’s often easier said than done – but I also know that supporting my kids’ teachers is one of the most important jobs I have, so my wife and I work hard to keep those lines of communication open. I attend parent/teacher conferences faithfully, and their teachers are fantastic. They give honest and candid feedback, and together we try to help our children build upon their strengths and be responsive when they have challenges. That’s when education works best: when parents and teachers work together.