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Doing Parent Engagement in the Age of ESSA

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November 16th, 2017

It’s no secret—parent and family engagement is critical to student success in school. Research has demonstrated for decades that this can have a major influence on a child’s achievement from improvements in attendance and behavior to stronger academic performance.

But the nature of that “involvement” is what is most key. ESSA now requires districts receiving Title I funds to engage parents and families through strategic activities distinguished as two-way, meaningful, and designed in a language all family members can understand. 

While teachers and schools now have access to more data than ever before, from benchmark scores and regular formative assessment performance, when communicating this information to parents and families, it’s important to consider the following three topics carefully. 


No matter what one’s political perspective on the matter of standards, schools and teachers want to assure families that instruction is rigorous and aligned to high expectations.

However, not all parents know what to do with information that their child is struggling with a specific standard, such as CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.4.1. Yet, many assessment reports list individual students’ performance by standard, whether it’s through a digital portal or printed out for parents to review.  

Some also refer to standards by its complete definition, which can read like this: Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text. Even parents with the best of intentions or educations may struggle with what to do with such information, not to mention whether they understand what references to these skills mean in practice.

One way to make this more accessible and meaningful for families is to group standards into more practical topics or question groups; replace CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.4.1 with “Using evidence to defend one’s ideas.” This can open up two-way discussions between parents and teachers about how to support students’ learning outside of the structures of classroom and standardized testing.

While we definitely want parents to closely monitor and support the completion of homework, we also want parents to engage children in conversations and practice of these skills in real-world ways, strengthening the learning bond as well as the family one.  


When it comes to students’ performance in our classrooms, communication that is regular and transparent should always be the aim. Yet, we also want to provide the proper context for parents to understand the value of progress over perfection.

This is the case for parents and families as much as it is for schools and teachers during data analysis of the fall and winter benchmark assessments. Our goal should be to equip parents with a similar lens when looking at academic performance early in the year, as we help them to understand the power of their ongoing support and encouragement. 

These conversations are excellent opportunities to emphasize school-wide initiatives to promote grit and growth mindset models that are encouraged during class time to reinforce while at home. There are many resources on how to make conferences with parents data-driven and meaningful—whether teacher-led, student-led, or some combination. 

Check out this guide for having data-driven conversations with families from Harvard’s’ Graduate School of Education. In another example, a school in Oakland, CA uses Illuminate as part of student-led conference to emphasize this.

Whole child

With the adoption of ESSA and the California School Dashboard, we’re all moving toward a view of school success based on multiple measures, and this message needs to be echoed in our engagement with parents and families as well.

While performance on state testing and the benchmarks that guide our instruction are of utmost importance, we want parents to know that we think of their child as more than a set of numbers.  We can help paint that picture for them using the spectrum of data that we collect, from student surveys on school climate or student meta-cognition in addition to photos and videos of students’ work. 

This holistic approach can also create opportunities for parents and families to engage meaningfully with their own questions and even solutions as everyone involved makes connections between the various data points. Many districts now turn to tech platforms to better alert parents about school announcements and students’ progress in class.

Yet, making sure that you’re presenting the “whole” picture of a child’s experience in school may take additional planning and interactions as the value is greatest not just in the communication but the understanding of how it all works together.


Henderson, A. T. & Mapp, K. L. (2002). A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement. Southwest Educational Development Laboratory. 

Schwartz, S. (2017). Digital Communication Tools Target ESSA Parent Engagement Mandate. Education Week. Vol. 36, Issue 27, Page 11.

Kirby, A. (2017). Student-led Lessons Not Stalled by Lack of Strong Vocab. Cabinet Report.


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

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