To be sure, there are plenty of things for teachers to be discouraged about in today's schools. Budget cuts, increased class sizes, high-stakes testing -- small wonder that teachers are more concerned about their jobs than they have been in decades. But there's also cause for optimism -- among the teachers with the highest job satisfaction are those who are encouraged to work closely with parents. And recent surveys suggest that parents have never been more engaged in their children's educations than they are today.
We know that preparing children for school and for life is a shared responsibility. The results of the 2011 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher show what can happen when parents and teachers work together toward that common goal. According to the survey, parental engagement is rising substantially -- for example, nearly half of all parents visit their children's schools at least once a month, nearly triple the amount that did in 1988. Some 83 percent of students surveyed believe that their teachers and parents work together to help them succeed. We know from national data that levels of parent involvement in high-poverty schools is still unacceptably low -- and that when parents aren't involved, families, schools and communities suffer.
When parents get involved in schools, they tend to give teachers high marks on a range of important issues -- collaboration, responsiveness, sharing information and providing guidance on things they can do to help their students succeed. For their part, teachers say they value the important role that parents play, and want to be supported by school leaders and their peers as they reach out to parents and work with them.
The NEA Foundation and others are harnessing the power of parents in low-income schools through a transformative way of promoting involvement: school-sponsored home visits by teachers. While parent-teacher conferences are almost universal, home visits by teachers are far less common. But they change the parent-teacher dynamic in important ways. Unlike conferences, which often focus on one-way communication about students' performance and discipline issues, home visits are built around open dialogue. They focus on building and sustaining trust.
In cities like Springfield, Mass., and Seattle, Wash., these visits have become a core strategy for increasing student achievement in low-performing schools, work that we support through the NEA Foundation's Closing the Achievement Gaps initiative. Both of these school districts, and others around the country, see the visits as a worthwhile investment of time and resources that improves the quality of both teaching and learning.
For parents, home visits provide a face and a point of contact for the school, making it easier to reach out for advice on how to support their child's learning at home. For teachers, visits provide greater perspective into students' personalities and learning styles, allowing them to better meet their individual needs in the classroom. They also build a relationship with parents that is conducive to the ongoing sharing of information. As one teacher in Springfield put it, "Teachers feel more comfortable picking up the phone, and families are more apt to talk to us. I can do problem-solving because I know that person."
Most importantly, home visits and the stronger relationships that come from them help support learning in the home, which research has found to be particularly important for traditionally underachieving students. An independent evaluation of home visits conducted at California State University in Sacramento revealed that standardized test scores in schools conducting visits increased at a higher rate than the Sacramento school district as a whole.
The visits -- and the hard work between districts, teachers and their unions, and the community that support them -- also speak to something larger. In Springfield and Seattle, they are a tangible result of a change in thinking. In both cities, teachers unions, administrators and community members have entered strategic partnerships to make home visits a reality. Parents, teachers and administrators have stopped pointing fingers about the challenges that students face, and are instead working together to change their lives for the better. Small wonder, then, that teachers and parents in places like these are far more optimistic about their schools and the future their children face.