“Parent Engagement” is a buzzword used frequently in the education world, and it’s a goal for most schools and districts. There is a widely held belief that involving parents in their children’s education will reap positive outcomes for student learning.

Most often people think about parent engagement in terms of bringing parents into the school for teacher conferences, helping with classroom activities in early grade levels or helping with school fundraising efforts. Yet, decisions about how to engage parents are seldom informed by research, and some strategies are less effective than others in improving student learning.

Researchers from the Maine Education Policy Research Institute — a research partnership between the University of Maine and the University of Southern Maine — investigated the role of parent engagement in supporting students’ academic learning. The team reviewed the research literature, surveyed Maine schools, and analyzed survey responses in correlation with state testing results for reading and math.

Overwhelmingly, research strongly indicates that parents’ educational interactions with their children at home have a more significant, positive effect on student learning outcomes than most types of parent engagement in school. Studies suggest the most effective strategy for parents is engaging in collaborative homework and educational activities in the home. This might involve asking questions about characters and themes in a reading assignment, reading together or playing a math game together. The implications for schools would be to create more collaborative homework and enrichment activities to send home with students, and to hold family math, literacy or science nights at the school to support parent engagement at home. Teachers might need professional development to help them create more collaborative learning activities.

Having educational resources in the home is another important factor supporting student achievement. In response, schools could provide enrichment materials and create a lending library for students. Parent communication with children about their learning strongly influences students’ motivation and achievement. Schools can encourage this with information explaining the importance of parental involvement in a child’s learning.

Drawing on the research, effective school communication and outreach with parents has the following characteristics:

It’s regular. Parents receive regular communication about their child’s academic and behavioral success, information about the academic program, curriculum and testing schedule, and information about how and why to support their child’s learning at home.

It’s targeted. Parents of struggling or low-achieving students receive phone calls, mail and in-person contacts.

It’s proactive. All new families in the community, for example, receive welcome packets and letters with information about the school and academic program.

It’s focused. The written communication mailed home, materials sent home and at-school activities that engage parents and students in learning together are focused on academics and learning.

Results from the survey of Maine schools indicate areas for potential improvement in parent engagement.

For example, only one-third of the 48 responding schools said they call new families moving into their communities, and only one-quarter of the schools indicated they send personalized letters to new families. Two-thirds of responding schools said they make an effort to assign homework requiring parental involvement, and half said they send home enrichment materials. Less than half of schools (43 percent) said they generally offer low or no-cost family activities at the school, and slightly more than one-third indicated they make at least an annual effort to encourage parents to become involved in their child’s learning at home.

An examination of Maine state testing data makes it clear that these school strategies have a positive effect on student learning. The study found a positive correlation between certain communication and enrichment strategies and student proficiency in math, and to a lesser extent in reading.

This study of parent engagement helps to inform school decisions with evidenced-based strategies for communicating with parents about student learning and providing enrichment resources for student learning at home. While collaborative homework between parents and children has been found to have the strongest effect on student learning, that effect is even stronger when the school communicates with parents about why parent engagement at home is so important.

Janet Fairman is an associate research professor, and Craig Mason is a professor with Maine Education Policy Research Institute and the Center for Research and Evaluation at the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Maine. Katie Thompson and Theresa Gillis, both doctoral students in the educational leadership program at the University of Maine, contributed to this research. For a full version of the research report, visit http://bit.ly/parentsengaged.