Nine mothers from Burma flipped open manila file folders in Room 210 in Oakland’s Garfield Elementary School and looked at information that was as foreign as it was compelling – a chart comparing their child’s progress in reading to that of their unidentified classmates and grade-level standards.
The data appeared in the universal language of bar graphs and the mothers, who are Karen-speaking refugees with little formal education, each saw at a glance how far her child has come and how much more there is to be to learned before the end of the school year.
It is the kind of real-time comparative data that most teachers don’t reveal to families, and it is the core of an approach called Academic Parent-Teacher Teams, which is taught by the San Francisco-based research group WestEd. In addition to Garfield Elementary, the program is operating at schools in the Sacramento, Stockton and San Juan Unified districts and 300 schools nationwide. The idea is to share ongoing math and reading scores in a way that emphasizes progress, doesn’t embarrass families and creates a parent-school relationship that is based on the obvious but often overlooked common ground of how a child is doing in class.
In the national drive to lift student achievement by teaching parents how to help their children learn, some say thoughtful data-sharing should be at the core of a family-school partnership – and that across all languages and cultures, nothing communicates the pressing need for academic intervention like a big gap on a graph.
“It’s our intention for people to feel a little fire,” said Leslie McLean, a literacy coach at Garfield Elementary, where 57 percent of K-5 students are English learners. She cited research linking the inability to read at grade-level in 3rd grade with a fourfold increase in the odds of dropping out of school, although she acknowledged that progress for English learners understandably could take longer. Still, she said, “A lot of parents know their kids are reading, but they don’t know what grade-level reading is. This is urgent.”
Academic Parent-Teacher Teams, which are included as a strategy in the U.S. Department of Education’s framework for family-school partnerships, flips the idea that two 15-minute parent-teacher conferences a year and a “Back-to-School” information night – the norm in many schools – is the best way to involve families in their child’s academic life.
Instead, parent-teacher conferences are supplemented with group meetings twice a year, where parents learn from the teacher and each other what skills in math and reading are being taught, how their child’s achievement compares to others in class and specific ways to help at home, such as establishing a routine where a student works on the Spatial-Temporal Math computer game when a parent is cooking dinner. Team meetings typically consist of teachers from a classroom or grade level getting together with the parents of their students. If parents speak a language that is relatively uncommon, such as Karen, schools will group parents by language and use a translator.
“I cannot read,” said Paw Lay Loe, parent of three children at Garfield Elementary. “I cannot help them. But I can encourage them to read every day.”
Families that spend time reading to their children, reviewing homework and talking about ideas tend to raise students who are successful at school, according to decades of research. Yet in California, home to the largest immigrant population in the country and the second-largest concentration of refugees from war-torn countries, many families have the desire but not the background to support their children, experts say.
Families and individuals fleeing Burma were the largest group of refugees entering the U.S. in 2015, federal statistics show, and in Oakland, “we found there was a large number of parents where both mom and dad were illiterate and didn’t have the exposure to education,” said Laura Vaudreuil, executive director of Refugee Transitions, a nonprofit organization. Their desire to have their children succeed in school is “powerful,” she said.
The push for parent involvement in education is under scrutiny in California, where schools are two years into creating Local Control and Accountability Plans, an annual accountability system that requires them to work with parents to create budgets, show parents how much they are spending on family outreach and then survey parents about how that outreach is going. As of 2013, parent involvement is one of eight state educational priorities, and according to studies, districts are working to get families involved in decision-making.
But while weighing in on school budgets is important, said Heather Weiss, founder of the Harvard Family Research Project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, parents need information they can use – details about what their child is supposed to be learning, whether that learning is on track and what specifically they can do to help at home.
Kristin Ehrgood, president of the Flamboyan Foundation, which supports Academic Parent-Teacher Teams in 27 schools in the District of Columbia, echoed that thought. “It is not bake sales, it is not coming to see the school play and it is not coming to field day,” Ehrgood said. “This type of family engagement is about a partnership between teachers and families so we are really igniting that child’s learning.”
Weiss cautioned, though, that if not well presented, the method “has the potential to cause harm” by leaving parents dejected about their child’s relative lack of progress. To fend off incipient parental despair, the spirit of the meetings, she said, should be rooted in ideas expounded upon in the book “Mindset” by Stanford researcher Carol Dweck, which presents an expansive understanding of intelligence as a trait that can be developed through learning, not that students are either “smart” or “dumb” from birth onward.
On a recent morning in the parent meeting room at Garfield Elementary, the mothers from Burma – whose educational experience in their farming villages ranged from never having attended school to attending through 6th grade – stood in a circle as McLean, speaking through a translator, began a warm-up activity. She asked the women, whose children ranged from kindergartners through 5th-graders, to step forward if a statement were true. “I like to make tea leaf salad.” Everyone stepped forward. “My child likes to read.” No one moved.
McLean responded with empathy, acknowledging that learning to read takes a lot of effort and that learning English at the same time “takes even more effort.”
But she stayed on message. Sitting with the mothers around a table, she said that their children need to be reading at home, for as much as two hours a day, if they are going to catch up to their English-speaking classmates. Like any parents of a reluctant reader, the mothers seemed none too thrilled by the prospect.
McLean offered suggestions about how to nudge this along. “You can talk to your child, in your language, about their books,” she said. “You can say ‘Who or what is the story about? Teach me what you learned.'”
The women spoke among themselves. Translator Hsar Htoo reported, “They say their children read at school.”
McLean nodded, but continued on. “They might be reading this,” she said, holding up a slim picture book. “But they could be reading this,” she said, hefting a thick paperback volume. “This is a 5th- or 6th-grade book.”
She added, “I personally believe that reading is a key to freedom.”
The Academic Parent-Teacher Teams approach was created in 2008 by Maria Paredes, who was then a school-parent participation coordinator and doctoral candidate in Creighton, Arizona. Paredes, who is now a senior program associate at WestEd, said the idea of focusing parent engagement on academics came to her after listening to the frustration of parents in the Creighton School District.
“We were spending a lot of time and effort in areas that did not give parents tools to really help their children be successful students,” she said. “Their children were falling behind and parents didn’t understand why they weren’t given specific support strategies.”
The group meetings have five parts: team building, introducing grade-level skills, data discussion, teacher modeling of activities to use at home, and parents practicing an activity with each other.
The approach has not been rigorously tested, but initial results have been positive. A study of 1st-graders in the Creighton schools found that in classrooms where the Academic Parent-Teacher Team approach was used, the students’ average reading fluency scores of 16 words per minute in September 2009 jumped to 45 words per minute in November 2009, according to a National Education Association brief. In contrast, students in classrooms that did not use the team model increased their fluency rates to only 27 words per minute read correctly.
Later, the mothers from Garfield Elementary gathered at the home of translator and fellow parent Htoo, sitting side by side on two sofas as a baby nursed and a boy and a girl too young for school roamed the room. The mothers all had fled the Karen state in southeast Burma, spent a decade or more in refugee camps in Thailand, and eventually traveled 7,614 miles, give or take a few hundred miles, to get to Oakland. Why had they come?
“The Burmese soldiers came and burned the house and two churches and everything they saw,” said Paw Lay Loe, whose children are in 1st, 4th and 5th grades. “We didn’t have anything. That’s why we came.”
To a person, they said they wanted their children to graduate from college. Cha Say Wa, who has five children, said she’d never been to school. “We have to buy education in Burma,” she said. “But here it is free.”
When asked what they did for fun, no one spoke. One mother said she enjoyed going on her child’s field trip to San Francisco. Others said they’d like to take a trip outside of Oakland to see trees, hills and open fields.
They said the academic team meetings at Garfield were helpful and that the teachers were friendly. “My kids are doing great,” said Paw Hae, a parent of children in 1st, 3rd and 11th grade. “We have a report card meeting and the teacher told me that my kid is at grade level.”
“I cannot read,” Loe said. “I cannot help them. But I can encourage them to read every day.”