Inside the Data: Parent Notifications Have Become the Norm in K-12 Market

Managing Editor

The education market today is replete with digital platforms and tools that deliver all manner of updates and information to parents, via e-mail, text message, and app. Newly released federal data speak to just how common school-to-parent outreach, conducted by digital or other means, has become.

Sixty-two percent of parents of K-12 students say they receive “notes or e-mails” delivered to them about their children, according to a newly released report about parent and family involvement from the National Center for Education Statistics.

And nearly 90 percent of parents said they get either newsletters, memos, or notices addressed to all parents, the data show.

The information is taken from the Parent and Family Involvement in Education survey, a nationally representative survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau from January through August of last year.

The survey does not specify which forms of communication parents  were thinking of when they responded. It also does not say whether the information conveyed to parents was general information–about school scheduling or other announcements–or more pointed remarks about a child’s behavior or academic work. But it’s probably safe to assume that the information exchange includes a combination of all of these things.

The data is consistent with other research showing parents and schools increasingly turning to e-mail to communicate, said Joyce Epstein, the director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships, and the National Network of Partnership Schools, at Johns Hopkins University.

But what the data doesn’t show is how useful that communication is – for instance, how often it occurs, or whether it’s the sort of rich, two-way dialogue that is most beneficial to parents, said Epstein in an interview.

“There’s a quality and a quantity question that we really don’t know from this data,” Epstein said. “Communication is much more complicated than simply asking, ‘Did you receive it?’”

Families can want very different forms of communication from schools – some still favor printed materials – depending on factors such as parents’ access to technology and the language spoken at home, she added.

As we’ve reported, many school districts and teachers rely on digital tools to sent out messages to parents, and in some cases have two-way communication with them. There is some research that shows that certain kinds of tech-based communication between teachers and families brings a payoff academically for students.

It’s also worth noting that the Every Student Succeeds Act may also be a factor in districts seeking out new tech-communication tools. The law requires districts to set aside a slice of Title I funding for parent engagement. Some advocates question whether districts will use tech tools to meet the spirit of ESSA’s requirement–or merely use them for superficial back-and-forths.

As shown in the graphic above, parents in private schools–particularly private nonreligious schools–were more likely to say they were getting notes/e-mails about their children than were parents public schools.

To what extent are newer, tech-based tools carrying the load when it comes to parent-school contact? The information collected doesn’t speak to that. That phenomenon might have been shown if there had been surge in the parent communication by “note/e-mail” over time, and a corresponding decline and other types of communication, such as newsletters/memos/telephone calls, explained Sarah Grady, a statistician and project officer with NCES.

Previous NCES data, however, does not offer a clear picture on that point. The number of parents receiving notes/e-mails about their children has increased from 57 percent in 2011-12 and just 49 percent in 2002-03. But overall communication from schools to parents by newsletter/memo/e-mail or notice has held relatively steady during that period.

Communication between schools and parents also varies, depending on the background of the parent, the NCES data found.

While 66 percent of parents with a bachelor’s degree, and 73 percent of parents with a graduate or professional school background said they received notes/e-mails from schools about their children, just 49 percent  of parents with less than a high school education received those communications.

And while 64 percent of parents from homes where both of them speak English at home received notes/e-mails about their children, just 53 percent of parents from houses where neither of them speak English said they did.

The most forward-thinking school leaders try to identify the disparities between groups of parents who are accessing school communications and those who aren’t, and they attempt to take on disparities, Epstein said. Her center at Johns Hopkins seeks to help schools use research-based, effective, and equitable strategies for family involvement in education.

“It’s those gaps that become the starting points,” she said.

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