Engaging families can reduce political polarization in schools

District partnerships with parents are key to solving heightened political polarization in schools, according to an Aug. 10 brief from The Brookings Institution.

From lawsuits to violent incidents at school events and board meetings, national surveys of K–12 educators — including district leaders, principals and teachers — consistently show that parents have become a key source of tension in schools. However, even though researchers note that these incidents may be the work of a small but vocal minority of parents, there are steps schools can take to better engage all parents in ways that can alleviate political tensions.

While national surveys of educators do reveal points of tension between families and schools as it relates to curriculum and inclusive policies, those same surveys also underscore the influence of strong family engagement and the importance of building trusting relationships with families to head off potential conflict early, according to researchers.

The brief calls for a two-pronged approach to establishing a climate in which families feel heard and educators feel supported. It includes proactively building trust and engaging parents in conversations about their children’s learning, as well as a reactive strategy to manage conflict when it does occur to reduce the burden on educators.

Recommended actions can include:

  • Creating clear protocols for how teachers and principals should respond to families. “To avoid placing increased burdens on an already beleaguered workforce, school system leaders should streamline processes and develop protocols to respond to families’ concerns,” the brief states. “This might include guidance on moving concerns to higher levels of authority within a school system, submitting instructional materials for approval, and responding to opt-out requests from parents. A list of approved instructional materials that teachers can draw on when they do want to address race or gender in the classroom could also help.”
  • Fostering greater transparency around instructional policies and practices and work to establish more alignment between parental beliefs and best practices. Family involvement is critical for helping students succeed, but students are also best served when curriculum and instructional practices are informed by professional expertise and research evidence. To help strike a balance, “School system leaders should be prepared to articulate the reasoning and evidence behind their policies and instructional practices as well as the value — whether academic, social or otherwise — of instructional content or policies that parents might consider controversial,” according to the brief. “School system leaders should work to educate families on their instructional choices so that families can develop an understanding of the evidence and knowledge base undergirding schools’ policies.”
  • Collecting data on what families in their school communities think about politicized issues. Districts should consider administering “brief, factual and objective surveys to families in their school communities. Such data might help leaders identify potential points of contention — or even misconceptions — held by parents,” researchers wrote. “These data might also help leaders avoid making decisions that address the preferences of only a vocal minority of parents and identify opportunities for school and district leaders to emphasize common ground.” For instance, a 2022 Pew Research Center survey found two-thirds of parents, including a majority of both Republican and Democrat parents, believe schools should teach their children social-emotional skills. “Leaders could emphasize these shared values when communicating about school activities or books that students are reading,” the brief concludes.