Intersection: Urban & Special Education

April 27, 2017

Retention, Responsiveness, and Parent-Teacher Communication

Filed under: Uncategorized — Evan M. Johnston @ 4:10 pm

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


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’s 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.

Originally posted on the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools blog page. Follow @metronyu on Twitter for more blogs on educational equity.


April 18, 2017

Culturally Responsive Field Research in Program Evaluations and Monitoring

When social science researchers engage in fieldwork projects, there is usually a set of prescribed of protocols that guide the parameters of their research. Some of these protocols and principles are grounded in legal issues, such as Institutional Review Board (IRB) guidelines, while others are guided more by informal or formally-codified “best practices” intended to help ensure access as well as convey the positionality of the researcher to the reader.  

The integrity of such practices in field research is even more paramount when the population researched is of a different background than that of the researcher in some significant way. Some examples of this might be families from lower-income backgrounds, racial, linguistic, gender, sexual, religious, or ethnic minorities, children, persons with disabilities, and persons with medical conditions or risky behaviors who may not wish to self-identify.  

When research is conducted for the purposes of program evaluation or compliance monitoring, however, these practices are often reduced to issues of quality control and access to data. This can result in culturally disconnected- if not insensitive- research. Without the same standards of sensitivity to culture and context as academic research, even the crispest research design can be compromised.


Effective evaluations or monitoring projects will inevitably require interviews. Of foremost importance in the exercise of obtaining quality data from the interviews is gaining access to participants in your evaluation study.  When entering an unfamiliar community, it is important to do some historical research first. Some questions to consider at the outset of a monitoring or evaluation project include:

  • What is the history of the community into which you plan to enter?
  • Have there been significant demographic shifts in the community over time? Is the community undergoing demographic change now?
  • How do changes in the population over time affect perceptions of various groups within the community? Who feels welcome? Who feels unwelcome?
  • What languages are spoken in the community? Do you have access to a person within the community that can open doors of access for you?
  • What are the relevant community organizations working with your population of interest?
  • How might broader sociopolitical trends or attitudes toward your population of interest affect their willingness to self-identify and participate in the research? How do you ease those concerns?
  • What are the politics of the community, both within and without your population of interest?

Based on questions like these, your research team may identify a list of utmost priorities prior to engaging in any sampling for interviews, such as announcing your presence to residents, declaring your purpose, and identifying key allies within the community who can help you gain access to members of your intended communities. Such allies may include school administrators, teachers, social workers, churches, community organizations, public partners, or residents who trust your organization and can vouch for your integrity and discretion.


Once you gain that consent to interview, you have to decide whether your interview goals are best achieved via focus group, individual interviews, or some combination. There are other questions to consider as well: How long do you want your participants to stay? What times of day or locations work best for your participants? Who could benefit from assistance with transportation or some form of reimbursement for their time? Will a translator need to be present? The answers to these questions can often be culturally mediated, and it is important to make sure your limitations do not result in the exclusion of significant segments of your population. Most of these issues apply equally to surveys and interviews.

Again, while some of these notions are congruent with best practices in academic research, it is also important to note that the answers to these questions will vary immensely as a function of the community being interviewed. Some people will be much more forthcoming in a group interview setting because they are more comfortable around peers. Others may not wish to provide critical feedback in front of others and would be more candid in a one-on-one setting in a comfortable location. If you want the highest quality responses in your program evaluation, you want to make the participants as comfortable in providing feedback as possible.


Data analysis is another key area in which cultural competence is paramount. Assuming you’ve gained access to a sufficient sample for interviews and surveys, and assuming you’ve been able to conduct most or all of that effectively, implicit bias can still sour all that hard work by clouding what you or your team can observe in the data. Having a team trained in culturally responsive fieldwork can help minimize that risk.

The people who analyze and code your interviews should be familiar with the cultures of those within those same communities that were interviewed. If the interviews were conducted in another language, the analyst should be an accomplished translator.  If the interviews contain names of local landmarks, parks, places of interest or prominent local persons, someone familiar with the area and those places and people of interest should be the ones to go back and verify the transcriptions.  Competence in community slang or other cultural totems (music, dance, festivals, holidays, traditions) are also important forms of cultural capital that interview analysts should possess.


Measures of triangulation that are traditionally used in field research can be especially important when researching communities whose members have different backgrounds than those of the researchers. Verifying trends in interview results with community groups, key participants, and allies within the community all become important to avoid misquotation, misinterpretation, and over/understatement. Member checking, when possible, can also ensure quality interpretation.

Triangulation is particularly important when both qualitative and quantitative measures were used to ensure that the perspectives expressed via quantitative measures are supported and conveyed via interview or focus group data. This both helps ensure that the interviews are representative of the diverse views of the communities surveyed, and also provides opportunities for additional significant themes and viewpoints not intentionally surveyed to come to light and provide a more holistic interpretation of all data points.


Cultural competence is an often unspoken, underrated, but essential component of culturally responsive field research. While program evaluation and monitoring can often be seen from the outside as dry, disconnected work entrenched in endless analysis of mundane numbers, effective evaluation programs are tremendously proactive, sensitive, and empathetic regarding the concerns and needs of diverse communities. Failure to recognize how differences among communities influence strategies for access, data gathering, analysis and interpretation can lead to incomplete, inaccurate or wholly invalid research. This disservices the communities and service providers who truly wish to do their best by those communities by offering needed and relevant programs. The work of good evaluations must be culturally competent and responsive.

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.

Originally posted on the blog page of the website of NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools.

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