Engaging Parents in Education: Lessons From Five Parental Information And Resource Centers
June 2007
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Making Education-related Information Available and Understandable

Under NCLB, parents and guardians are offered more information, more choice, and a bigger role in their children's education than in the past. But if the intent of the law is as singular and straightforward as its name, its intricacies can hinder parents in using it to their children's advantage. While education agencies generally have analysts and professional associations to help them understand the law and its ramifications, most parents do not have such resources at hand. This is where the PIRCs come in: ensuring that parents and guardians receive relevant NCLB information in a fashion that makes it meaningful to them, using simplified language to communicate its relevant points as clearly as possible.

A number of PIRCs have published NCLB guides that cover the basics of accountability, school choice, and SES, while also including more time-dependent NCLB information, such as legislative updates, in newsletters that are sent to parents and educators. For a more personal approach that allows parents to ask questions and discuss NCLB, some PIRCs, such as the Indiana Partnerships Center and the PIRC that was operated by the Academic Development Institute (ADI), based in Lincoln, Ill., have offered workshops (e.g., Indiana's "No Child Left Behind, P.L. 221 & You!") that specifically outline parent and educator roles in fulfilling NCLB's parent involvement mandates, such as writing the school-parent compact and engaging parents in developing parent involvement policies. The Utah Family Center, based in Salt Lake City (and as of its 2006 PIRC grant, operating under a new name, Utah Family Partnership Network), includes on its Web site brief, concise descriptions of NCLB terms (e.g., a school report card, school choice, SES) and issues (e.g., testing requirements, what it means to not meet AYP).

Start With Existing NCLB Resources

When it comes to illuminating what NCLB offers for parents, the U.S. Department of Education, SEAs, and others have already developed many helpful publications and Web-based documents. In such cases, there is no need for a PIRC to reinvent the wheel. Instead, PIRC staff can focus their efforts on finding an avenue to get these resources to parents. So, for example, the Indiana Partnerships Center has posted on its Web site an information resource developed by the U.S. Department of Education that briefly, and in an easy-to-understand fashion, describes a school-parent compact, gives directions and a template for writing a compact, and provides question prompts (e.g., "How can we use the compact throughout the school year?") for developing related action steps (e.g., use the compact as part of parent-teacher conferences). This PIRC also has posted a downloadable description from the Indiana State Board of Education of what a local parent involvement policy should include and how and to whom it should be distributed.

Ensure User-friendly Language and Format

Even for highly literate, well-educated parents, understanding how NCLB relates to them and their children can be challenging. For those who are not comfortably literate in English or who have little education, NCLB is virtually inaccessible in its original form, or even through the many articles about it that have been published in newspapers and magazines or via the Web. For these parents, it is essential that relevant aspects of the legislation be presented in easily understandable language and formats. Staff at these highlighted PIRCs suggest, for example, using colorful graphics and charts; keeping communication of basic elements to one page each, if possible; gearing language to approximately a sixth- to eighth-grade level as many newspapers do (based on the education level of their readership); and using a variety of parents, especially those in targeted communities or populations (e.g., those for whom English is a second language), to review materials as they are being developed.

To help parents understand and navigate the legislation, ADI's PIRC developed A Parent Guide to No Child Left Behind,9 which explains parents' rights and responsibilities under the legislation and has been offered in both Spanish and English. The guide's narrative is broken up by colorful textboxes that either provide helpful tips for parents (e.g., how to assist with homework) or suggest questions parents might want to ask local educators. The guide has been disseminated through home visits, workshops, mailings, and downloads from the Internet, and more than 200,000 copies have been distributed to date, both within Illinois and nationwide via Internet downloads.

Similarly, the Indiana Partnerships Center developed and distributes A Parent's Guide to Understanding NCLB & P.L. 221 10 (P.L. 221 being Indiana's education accountability act). This eight-page guide, brightly colored with simple, appealing graphics, starts by very briefly introducing the laws and defining a few key terms (e.g., AYP). But most of its information is displayed in a chart laid out according to key concepts covered by the laws, including, for example, academic goals, teacher qualifications, student assessment, accountability, and school safety. (see fig. 3, Indiana Partnerships Center: Excerpt From A Parent's Guide to Understanding NCLB and P.L. 221, below.) Each row has four columns: NCLB, P.L. 221, "What it means to parents," and "Where to find more information." So, for example, on the general topic of highly qualified teachers, the chart explains what the two laws (i.e., NCLB and P.L. 221) dictate and, then, in the what it means column, explains that parents have the right to ask for information about their children's teachers, including whether they have completed state requirements for licensure and certification, for example. The last column provides the names of (and Web site addresses for) several additional sources of information on the topic. This guide, too, is offered in both Spanish and English.

Figure 3. Indiana Partnerships Center: Excerpt From A Parent's Guide to Understanding NCLB and P.L. 221

In addition to using written materials, the Utah Family Center has packaged NCLB information in two DVDs, one about testing and accountability and the other about SES and school choice under NCLB. To help ensure that the dvds would be easily understood by parents, the written scripts were shown to advisory board members (including parents). Rather than trying to distribute the DVDs directly to individual parents, the center has relied on its own trainers to use them at site council trainings and advisory board meetings and on school boards and community organizations, such as parent-teacher organizations, to reach additional audiences. At the time this guide was researched, the center was working on Spanish versions of the DVDs. In hopes of imparting NCLB-related information in a more engaging and understandable way, the Indiana Partnerships Center has been developing a DVD that highlights parents discussing NCLB together. DVDs are a particularly helpful tool for informing parents who cannot or do not read, and when used with a group of people—at a meeting of a parent-teacher organization, a school staff meeting, or a church-based gathering, for example— they oftentimes prompt questions and discussion that can be addressed or facilitated, respectively, by a PIRC staff member or volunteer.

One method for ensuring that information is presented in a meaningful way for the intended audience(s) is to have it reviewed by members of the targeted group(s). The Indiana Partnerships Center has convened parent focus groups, as well as its parent advisory council, to review materials and weigh in on their relative user-friendliness. Center staff present draft materials and ask participants to weigh in on whether the materials are understandable and interesting. Thus, those who live in the communities for which the materials are intended provide feedback prior to the materials being completed and distributed. IDRA also has its materials vetted, asking community organizations that work with parents in both rural and urban areas (rural southern texas usually includes Mexican immigrants whereas urban areas usually include immigrants from many countries in Latin America) to convene groups of parents to give feedback on whether the information is clear.

Make Performance Data Meaningful

Parents' understanding of how their children's school and district are performing overall is considered an essential component of NCLB. Thus, the law requires that parents receive report cards (i.e., a report card on the school or district, not the child) specifying at the school or district level how students have performed on mandated standardized tests, with student performance broken down by student subcategories, such as ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and limited English proficiency status. In addition, the parents of children whose school or district has not made AYP must be notified promptly and be informed of their options (e.g., SES, school choice) before the beginning of the school year or term in which choice or SES options will be offered.

To help parents understand performance data, ADI's PIRC developed a workshop that walks parents through a school report card to explain its different components. To make the experience more meaningful, parents are asked to bring their own school's report card. The workshop covers the topics of demographics, academic performance, and AYP. After looking at each section of the report card, parents are informally quizzed on elements of their own school's report card, such as whether the school is making progress toward achieving AYP in math (see fig. 4, Academic development Institute: Excerpted Report Card Guide to Help Parents Understand Student Performance at the School, District, and State Levels, below). As the parents walk through this process they are able to ask the facilitator to clarify information and answer any related questions they might have. This training on reading and interpreting the data has been offered in NCLB workshops conducted by community-based organizations contracted by ADI, as well as in a range of other contexts where it might be useful, such as in setting up school community councils (i.e., ADI's version of school site councils, which deal directly with school policy).

Figure 4. Academic Development Institute: Excerpted Report Card Guide to Help Parents Understand Student Performance at the School, District, and State Levels

Reading Your School Report Card

Part III
Academic Performance

  • What percent of the students in the school meets or exceeds expectations on all state tests for the year 2004-05? __________
  • Is this school's academic performance higher or lower than the district's? __________
  • In which year did the students perform better? __________



Image of a graph that provides the overall student performance for school years 2003-2004 and 2004-2005.

Similarly, the Indiana Partnerships Center has developed a guide that walks parents through the Indiana Accountability System for Academic Progress Web site. This Web site includes information on the Indiana academic standards, accountability, professional development, school data (including performance data), school improvement planning, and the state performance profile. The guide is designed specifically to help parents understand the school data portion of the Web site, and it does this by providing a graphic of each relevant Web site page with large red arrows pointing to where parents should click on the screen. Hints like "scroll over bars on this graph to find out how many students took and passed this exam" and little messages—such as "Don't panic!!!"—are interspersed throughout the guide. Finally, the guide includes a phone number to the Indiana Partnerships Center so parents can call with questions. this guide is downloadable from the center's Web site and is distributed at NCLB workshops as well.

IDRA has taken another approach: engaging a group of computer-savvy students from the lower Rio Grande valley—the Youth Education Tekies—to provide computer training and support for their parents and other adults in the community. A chief goal for these students, ranging from sixth grade to college, is to get their adult "students" proficient enough so they can access online information about their children's schools, districts, SEAs, and NCLB. At one of IDRA's leadership training sessions for parents and educators, the Tekies guided participants through the Texas Education Agency Accountability system Web site, where school, district, and state accountability data are posted. Participants were given worksheets instructing them to find their children's school on the Web site, locate particular data about the school, compare different subsets of the data (e.g., performance scores for Latinos and African-Americans), and reflect on their findings. The Tekies coached parents, some of whom had never used a computer, as they carried out the tasks. IDRA's PIRC director says the intergenerational program also is intended to support students' development as active participants in their communities.

Tips for Making Education-Related Information Available And Understandable

  • Do not reinvent the wheel—check for existing publications and tools to distribute.

  • Create reader-friendly NCLB materials that are short, concise, clearly written, and well designed.

  • Have representative parents review draft materials for reader friendliness before the materials are produced.

  • Create informational DVDs for nonreading parents and group sessions.

  • Create workshops, guidance sessions, and Web sites to help parents understand the relevant issues.

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Last Modified: 06/15/2009