The term “digital equity” has been talked about in K-12 circles for several years, but Covid school closures brought increased attention to the issue. Digital equity can take on many forms. Within a single school district, crucial components of learning such as internet access, device availability, technological skills, and accessible content vary significantly from household to household.
Addressing these challenges requires more nuance than providing the same services and devices to every student. Instead, equity requires that districts take a closer look at individual student needs regarding technology and accommodate those differences.
Digital equity likewise impacts parents. While much focus has been on improving access to technology for students, an area of digital equity that often gets overlooked is how parents are expected to engage with their children’s schools.
The importance of communication between school and home cannot be overstated. Research shows that students with engaged families earn higher grades and test scores, adapt more quickly, attend school more regularly, have better behavior and social skills, and go on to graduate at higher rates. Parents who have an idea of what is happening in the classroom are better equipped to help their students succeed and can align learning at home with learning at school. That’s why equitable communication with parents needs to be part of a district’s overall equity goals.
Equitable parent communication requires schools to meet each parent where they are, especially considering that nearly 1 in 4 U.S. homes live without internet access. Parents who do not have smartphones and personal computers should have the same access to their children’s teachers as parents with the latest technology. Communication should also consider and support parents with busy schedules and parents who do not speak English.
Often districts will employ communications platforms that require a parent to log into a portal (requiring a computer or smart-phone access), opt into a messaging service, or download software. Each of these obstacles restricts communication pathways for parents who do not have access to the required technology.
Communication tools that have low or no entry barriers and allow parents direct access to their children’s teachers have the greatest potential to improve both school-home relationships and student performance. Districts should consider platforms that enable parents to receive phone calls to a landline and SMS messages to a standard cell phone.
Also, platforms that focus on “blast” and “mass” types of messaging are sufficient for distributing information pertinent to an entire classroom or school but miss the mark on developing meaningful relationships with individual parents and creating real engagement. Districts should opt to use tools that create digital parity for parents and foster an environment where meaningful conversations can take place.
Take, for example, the image on the right from a real tool that is used for parent-teacher communication. It depicts one school’s parent-teacher engagement by classifying messages into broadcasts vs one-to-one messages. The pie chart shows that nearly 70% of all messages sent this academic year were mass style messages and fewer than one-third were direct communications between the teacher and a parent.
The bar chart below breaks the data down by individual teachers, which shows the type of communication — whether mass or one-to-one — that was chosen by each teacher and how often. Administrators can see which teachers to work with to transition mass messaging to more one-on-one communication through constructive communication practices.
Districts should also consider direct exchanges to see the level of reciprocity between parents and teachers. Ideally, the number of emails between a parent and a teacher should be about even, indicating that both the parent and the teacher consistently communicated with each other. And it is important to look at this by student group such as race or English learner status. For example, the chart to the right shows communication reciprocity remained balanced between incoming and outgoing messages regardless of students’ English language learning status.
Parent support continues to be the most important factor on the path to graduation. District communication tools must support positive school-home relationships. Investigate your current communication efforts and remove barriers based on the unique needs of your school community. Equitable communication is the pathway to engaging all parents in supporting student success.
Russ Davis is founder and CEO of SchoolStatus, a company that provides communication and analytics tools for school districts.
To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.