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Retention, Responsiveness, and Parent-Teacher Communication | 2017

By Evan M. Johnston

Retention conversations express dysfunctional parent-teacher communication strategies and place certain students at greater risk of negative outcomes.

Inside a university classroomuniversity

Many parents will receive unhappy news about their children’s academic, emotional, and social development from teachers and other school professionals at some point in their children’s school lives.  As a former teacher of self-contained special education classes in Newark, NJ, I have witnessed firsthand the uncomfortable conversations that parents are called into school to have with teachers, administrators, social workers, and other school professionals.

Oftentimes such conversations, particularly for struggling learners and minority students, revolve more around behavior than performance, especially conversations that pertain to grade retention (prevention of a student from moving to the next grade).  This is the time of year that many teachers notify parents of their intention to move forward with the retention of their child.  Such conversations are often treated more as a formality than as a genuine entreaty to the student’s family to help develop comprehensive solutions for the child moving forward. These conversations are happening around the country right now, and far too often, they are held with the parents of young Black and Latino boys at higher rates than any other population of students.

Further, retention decisions are sometimes made by districts on the basis of arbitrary or subjective measures, such as unsupported generalizations about ephemeral issues such as “behavior” or “maturity,” which also can serve as proxies for subjective determinations of deficit that may be culturally or socially constructed, or even rooted in implicit teacher biases of race and gender. When behavior is the focus, unidentified special needs may go ignored as a potential cause of student difficulty, as can language, leading to retention when modification or program change might have been more appropriate.

Determinations of unfitness on the basis of behavior can disproportionately disservice students on the basis of race, ability, gender, or learning style.  Further, retention in these cases carries the implicit logic that placing a child with less mature, younger incoming peers will somehow lead to improved behavior. This defies the research and deprives the child of the likely more mature and advanced coping strategies of their same-age peers.  Additionally, it defies the logic that a behavior intervention plan (BIP) can be implemented at any grade level, and therefore is not contingent upon retention. So, if behavior truly were the primary reason for retention, it seems unclear under what circumstances it would be appropriate to do so.

Instead, conversations about retention express one thing more clearly than student performance: a communication gap between parent and teacher that impacted parent awareness of student difficulty, parent advocacy, and/or teacher efficacy for that particular student.  These communication gaps arise from a variety of factors: differences in communication preference between parent and teacher, a misunderstanding of roles in inquiring about and communicating student progress, miscommunication at parent-teacher conferences, or other difficulties in opening or maintaining lines of communication. Research shows that increased communication can improve performance and engagement on key indicators like homework and participation in class.

One might ask, “Why can’t parents and teachers just text or email?” Despite efforts to modernize educational informational infrastructure, technology implementation is uneven from one district to another and technological access, despite assumptions to the contrary, is not even across all sectors of the population. Not everyone has a smartphone or computer and the time and/or skills to use them for this purpose. Policies on preferred modes of teacher-parent communication also can vary from one school to the next. Scheduling difficulties also arise when parents have difficulty requesting time off or their work hours directly conflict with conferences or a teacher’s availability.  All of these missed chances erode what should be a foundation of trust and communication built from the beginning of the school year between teacher and parent.  

When children are at risk of retention according to their teachers, the question for teachers and parents alike is: “What was the content of your previous exchanges?” All too often, especially for the struggling students, one or the other party feels alienated and the broken communication prevents the crucial dialogue that could prevent unnecessary retention.

At times, teachers can feel at a loss to find that “just right” space of structure, style, and presentation for their struggling students to get them engaged and learning in all lessons. Likewise, parents often assume either that their child is doing OK or that if something else were needed, the school would let them know.  Both parties are focused on either what is going on right or wrong for the student, but not what is going right or wrong with their communication with one another about the student. As a result, both employ a sort of, “no-news-is-good-news” strategy which merely perpetuates the status quo and fails to get at the heart of a student’s struggles in school.

It’s exactly within and across these gaps where teachers and parents can build a bridge. Teachers should make regular contact with their early strugglers' parents a priority by differentiating for parents the same way they do for students. No single communication strategy works best for all people, so even though we as teachers might prefer a phone call or text, it might be that an email or an app works better for some of our students’ parents. Therefore, greater diversity in the means of communication is essential, and commitment to it must be genuine.

Some teachers understandably do not want to share their personal phone numbers. For them, there are options: programs like Remind, Class Dojo, Edmodo, or Living Tree (formerly Class Messenger) include features such as real-time text by subscription to parents without revealing personal phone numbers.  They also allow the use of surveys, appointment times, and group and individualized direct messaging via browser. Programs like Google Voice, which generates a secondary phone number from which you can call or text, or text/video chat programs like Google Hangouts and Skype are other options that facilitate instantaneous communication without unnecessarily sharing personally identifying information, if doing so would make a teacher or parent uncomfortable.

Asynchronous communication is an essential feature of modern-day education. In a world in which students come to schools from homes in which their single or partnered parents are working, it is essential that teachers differentiate for their schedules. Conferences and phone calls during or just after school are not feasible or sufficient for all parents, just as multiple-choice tests are not sufficient assessments for all learners. If we want to demonstrate our commitment to the best education for all students, we can show that by augmenting our existing modes of outreach to their families. Beginning of the year communication surveys to parents can greatly help align communication practices to preferences.

For parents, the same is true. They should make any communication preferences known to their child’s teachers at the beginning of the school year, even and especially if it was not asked. Parents should continue to actively inquire throughout the year about how their child is doing. The more parents communicate with teachers, the more responsive teachers will likely be toward their children. When parents reach out, they are helping the teacher and their own child. At the same time, teachers should realize this is not always easy, especially in cases of divergences of identity between parents and teachers by race, language, and/or culture.

If the first time a conversation about student struggles occurs is in the middle or even end of the school year, it means that one or both parties have likely missed dozens of opportunities in the days prior, lost opportunities through which that crucial parent-teacher partnership was not fully developed. If the student’s struggles were at risk of not being promptly noticed or adequately addressed, as a result of environment, personality clash, class overload, or unconscious bias, it is unlikely those issues will be addressed, and the student may internalize stigma or feelings of inadequacy due to the dysfunction in support.

Sadly, more often than not, late retention notices pit parent and teacher against one another and only threaten to further anchor the child’s advancement by degrading the family-school partnership essential to improving outcomes for struggling learners. Because retention occurs at disproportionate rates toward certain populations of students, and because of its correlation with a number of other negative outcomes such as suspension, expulsion, or dropping out, this puts some of the most underserved students at further risk of an inadequate education for their needs and at higher risk for more negative outcomes in subsequent years. Putting them on the wrong track because two adults cannot get together on a communication strategy risks sacrificing the futures of some these potentially brilliant scholars without doing our very best for them.



Evan M. Johnston is a doctoral student at NYU Steinhardt’s Teaching and Learning Department and a Graduate Research Assistant in the Center for Research and Evaluation at Metro Center. Follow him @evanmjohnston on Twitter.