In the Classroom

Expert: A lot of school efforts to involve parents are bogus

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
University of Oregon professor and author Edward Olivios speaks to packed house about effective parent engagement at the 37 Place Community Center on the East side of Indianapolis Thursday.

Schools love to say they value parents, but what they consider “involvement” can be so phony it ultimately hurts the parent-school relationship.

That’s what Edward Olivos, an author and researcher who studies parent engagement, told a gathering of about 100 people tonight at the 37 Place Community Center on the East side of Indianapolis.

Parental involvement, Olivos said, is prescribed, sanctioned and — for schools — safe. It includes activities parents are expected to help with, like homework, volunteering and fundraising.

Parents are most effective, he said, when they are advocates for their children, for sensible policies and for solving real problems.

But parents who take that approach can be flat out scary to schools, Olivos said.

“Once parents take on advocacy, they are going to take a lot of people to town,” he said. “But that’s OK. Those are discussions we need to have, questions like, ‘why are these kids always suspended?’ There has to be a collaboration between teachers, parents and the administrators.”

Olivos is a Mexican-American, former first-grade teacher who grew up in San Diego. Now a professor at the University of Oregon, he is an expert in bilingual education and his book “The Power of Parents” explores the cultural barriers that block parents from playing a more effective role in public schools.

His book is the key text for a semester-long IUPUI education class taught by Gina Borgioli Yoder in which teachers and aspiring teachers study ways to better engage parents in schools. Yoder designed the course with help from Annela Teemant and John Loflin.

Loflin and Jose Evans are the co-founders of the Black and Latino Policy Institute, which arranged the event.

“We know its an issue here,” Loflin said of parent engagement in Indianapolis. “How should parents be involved, and who gets to decide?”

Olivios reads a passage about parent engagement from a book at Thursday's event.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Olivos reads a passage about parent engagement from a book at Thursday’s event.

Olivos told of working in schools where teachers were baffled why parents didn’t show up for parent-teacher conferences but came out in large numbers for potluck dinners.

That caused teachers to make false assumptions: that parents didn’t care, didn’t value education or didn’t grasp how formal education worked.

But Olivos said sometimes the parents just valued different aspects of education.

He gave the example of telling parents in conferences that their children were failing. But their priorities were different. What they wanted to know about their kids was: were they behaving? Were they being respectful?

“I just told them their kids are going to fail,” Olivos said, recalling his own confusion. “And all the questions are, how is my kid behaving?”

But to many Hispanic parents, he learned, the idea of an “educated” person was strongly bound to the notion of being respectful to others.

“Parents were doing a lot of their work,” Olivos said, “but in a frame that was different than we were expecting.”

Donielle Jones, a Central Elementary School third-grade teacher in Pike Township, said her eyes were opened in Yoder’s class.

“I was like, ‘yeah, I involve my parents,’” Jones said. “But then I learned that is not empowerment. I’m not engaging them in a conversation. I was very rigid. I was saying, ‘it’s third grade and this is how it is.’”

Jones, who is African-American, said she realized who she was even contributed to the confusion. She grew up in a middle class family and while she could relate to the experience of being African-American, as many of her students were, she didn’t always understand the challenges they faced in high-poverty homes.

“I cannot impose my values and my upbringing onto my students,” she said.

Olivos gave the parents in attendance this advice: force your schools to deal with the real issues in their communities and families, and help others do the same.

“To be on equal footing with institutions you need to know the rules they play by,” he said. “One thing we tell people is document. Write things down. Create a narrative. And teach someone else. So when your child goes on, there will be someone to follow.”

In the Classroom

How an Indianapolis teacher is making fourth grade more like a video game

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Guillermo Perez, right, finished nearly all of his assignments from their class game at home in his free time.

The tension was rising in Amanda Moore’s class. Fourth graders were facing off against a dragon-like Sea Raptal, and it was a close fight. Victory hung in the balance.

“What is the universal theme of our text?” asked Moore, calling on a boy to explain a story students had been reading in small groups. His answer — to treat others as you want to be treated — was correct, leading to the defeat of the monster, and causing the class to erupt in chatter and cheers.

All this excitement is because of “gamification,” a new approach Moore recently began using in her fourth-grade class at Chapelwood Elementary School in Wayne Township. With the help of an online platform called Classcraft, which allows students to inhabit characters, earn points, and complete quests, Moore designs adventures that entice students to practice math and reading skills.

Gamification is a growing trend in education that aims to use games to engage students in school work. Critics, though, raise concerns about students spending too much time on screens and the quality of the games. But games are becoming increasingly popular among teachers, and research suggests that games can improve student scores in subjects such as math and history.

Moore, who has taught at Chapelwood for a decade, learned about gamification recently while completing a master’s degree in curriculum and education technology at Ball State University. Since she started using games to teach in January, it has totally transformed the class, Moore said. Now, she is building positive relationships with students because she is playing games with them.

“We forget that kids are kids, and they want to play. And they are motivated by play, and they learn through play,” she said. “Gamification allows us to get back to that a little bit.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Characters from an adventure that’s helping Chapelwood elementary school students master reading skills.

This week is spring break, so Moore is working with a group of students who are slightly below grade level in reading for intersession. When the week began, Moore told the students that they were on a magical boat that was shipwrecked. As a class, they must collect enough crystals for their ship to set sail again.

In part, the game is based online, and students can bring laptops from school and keep playing at home. There is an adventure map, and every student has a character. Students can earn points online by completing assignments where they practice making inferences and identifying themes, and Moore can see how they are progressing. But the game is also the backdrop for other work, and the class sometimes comes to a halt when students face random events, where they can win or lose points.

“It’s fun because you can learn while you are playing a game,” said Lilly Mata-Turcios, a student in the class.

Since Moore started using online gaming, students have been more engaged, and they’ve continued to do school work at home so they can win rewards such as new armor for their characters or pets, she said. The class has built a strong community because students have to work together to defeat monsters like the Sea Raptal, Moore said.

“It’s a model of what personalization can look like in a blended classroom,” said Michele Eaton, the district director of virtual and blended learning.

During most weeks, students spend about an hour each day completing math and reading assignments through Classcraft. Moore also works with small groups and does instruction with the whole class. But everything they do takes place against the backdrop of their adventure.

“I think it’s just a really powerful way to teach,” Moore said. “It is absolutely worth the time.”

thrown for a loop

Elementary school teachers sometimes follow a class of students from year to year. New research suggests that’s a good idea.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Student Jaela Manzanares gets reading help from substitute teacher Colleen Rys in her third-grade class at Beach Court Elementary School in Denver.

When Kim Van Duzer, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, had a chance to follow her students from third to fourth grade the next school year, she jumped at the opportunity.

“It was such a positive experience,” she said. “One of the big advantages is starting in September hitting the ground running — you already know the kids and the things they did the previous year and the things they need to work on.”

Now, a new study seems to confirm Van Duzer’s experience. Students improve more on tests in their second year with the same teacher, it finds, and the benefits are largest for students of color.

Repeating teachers is “a beneficial and relatively low-cost policy that should be given due consideration,” write the researchers, Andrew Hill of Montana State University and Daniel Jones of the University of Southern Carolina.

The paper focuses on North Carolina students in grades 3 to 5 who had the same teacher two years in a row. That usually occurred not when a whole class repeated  with the same teacher — what’s often called “looping” — but with a small share of students ending up with the same teacher twice, for whatever reason.

How much did that second year with a teacher help? The overall effect was very small, enough to move an average student from about the 50th to the 51st percentile. But even this modest improvement is notable for several reasons.

First, it’s a policy that, at least in theory, doesn’t cost anything or require legislation to implement. Schools, if they choose to, could make looping a habit.

Second, the gains were larger for kids of color than for white students, suggesting that this could make a slight dent in longstanding test-score gaps.

Third, the students who saw the biggest gains had teachers who were lower performing overall, suggesting that having the same students twice may be particularly useful for helping teachers improve.

Fourth, it’s an idea that could affect a lot of students. Just being in a class where many peers were repeating with a teacher seemed to benefit kids who were new to the teacher, the study finds. The researchers think that could be because those teachers’ classroom environments improve during that second year with many of the same students.

That aligns with Van Duzer’s experience, when she had a handful of new students in her looped class. “The other kids were really welcoming to them, and they became fully integrated members of our class community,” she said.

Fifth, there may be other benefits not captured by test score gains. For Van Duzer, being able to pick up existing connections with students’ families was another perk. “It takes a school year to fully develop a relationship with kids and their parents — for everybody to get to know each other, to develop trust, to be able to speak really openly,” she said.

One important caveat: the study can’t prove that if looping were expanded, that the benefits would persist. Past research also isn’t much of a guide because there’s so little out there, but what exists is consistent with the latest study.

A recent analysis found students in rural China scored higher on tests as a result of the approach. Here in the U.S., the best evidence might come from what amounts to the reverse of the policy: having teachers of younger students focus on a single subject, and thus not have a single class of students. In Houston, this led to substantial drops in student test scores and attendance.

These studies suggest early grade teachers do better when they “specialize” in a small group of students, rather than a certain academic subject.

To Van Duzer, who now serves as a math coach at her school, having a firm understanding of what students learned the previous year is crucial and helps explain the findings.

“A lot of times when kids move into a new grade, the teachers are like, ‘You learned this last year!’ and the kids are like, ‘We did?’” she said. “But then if you say certain words … you remind them of certain experiences, like ‘Remember when we studied China and we talked about this?’ and then they’re like ‘Oh yeah, I do remember.’ But if you haven’t been there with them for those experiences, it’s harder to activate that knowledge.”