Commentary: Parents Are Students’ First Teachers and Greatest Advocates

by Aimee Viana


It is not a novel concept that family engagement is one of the strongest predictors of children’s school success. Studies over the past 50 years demonstrate a positive relationship between family engagement and student achievement for students of all backgrounds. Children are most successful when supported by families and schools working together collaboratively. As a parent, I understand the unique needs and learning behaviors of my children more than anyone. Through my respective roles as an educator and a federal K-12 policy professional, I also understand the nuances of balancing parental input with a safe and effective education for all students.

For years, parental involvement in education has been supported by Republican and Democratic leaders as integral to student success and as a guiding principle for federal and state education policy. The Every Student Succeeds ‎Act (ESSA), the bipartisan K-12 federal education law, explicitly requires that parents be meaningfully involved and consulted in the ‎development of state and school district education plans. These plans provide the ‎framework for how states and school districts will deliver education to elementary and high ‎school students. Additionally, the law requires that parents be involved in the creation of “state ‎report cards,” providing information on how schools in each state are performing – including ‎student achievement levels. The report cards ‎must be written and in an accessible way so that parents can take action to engage with their child’s school.

Recently, however, bipartisan support for parental involvement has come into question as we have seen increased civic involvement and participation by parents at local government forums. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” former governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia recently said. Statements like this discourage parents’ involvement in education and strain the collaborative relationships that local and state officials have established with the communities they serve.

As the current school year began, the ‎Virginia Department of Education released its state assessment results for 2020-2021 and acknowledged that the scores follow the national trend of declining pass rates. When compared to the last administered assessments (2018-2019), reading scores declined 9%, science performance declined 22%, and mathematics declined 28%. These data are discouraging, but parents can use them to approach school leaders and ask them how they plan to support their child’s academic growth. Teachers and school leaders can work with parents to build targeted support plans for students in the upcoming school year. With these data, policymakers can also make informed decisions about how best to direct materials and resources to increase student achievement. Collaboration with parents will provide a foundation on which policymakers and educators can work to sustain the recovery of the critical learning that students lost over the past two years.

A parent’s right and responsibility to hold schools accountable cannot be refuted. I encourage parents to increase their engagement at the local, state, and federal levels. Advocate for your children by asking teachers and school administrators how they plan to mitigate the impact of unfinished learning.  Request ongoing communication on your child’s development. Stay up to date on whether your children are on track to improve their mastery of state standards on the upcoming spring assessments. Familiarize yourself with local outcomes data and learn how you can become involved in the district’s parental-involvement and family-engagement initiatives. Check your state’s Department of Education website to learn about how you can become involved in the process for drafting the next state plan required under ESSA. Call your state representative and/or members of Congress to express support for parental engagement and encourage them to pass legislation protecting and expanding parental rights in education.

The time is now for policymakers and practitioners to embrace parents. It’s imperative to maintain provisions that promote family engagement in local policies while upholding those included in current education law. Collaboration provides a foundation to sustain the recovery of critical learning that students have lost during the pandemic. Together, let’s stay focused on student achievement and move our children – and our country –into a brighter future.

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Aimee Viana is a Distinguished Education Fellow at Parents Defending Education. She is a contributor to RealClearEducation.




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