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Michigan Teacher of the Year Candice Jackson: Empowering families helps close learning gaps

Republished from the Detroit News, September 20, 2023.

As this school year gets underway, we have to adopt proven strategies to close persistent learning gaps worsened by the pandemic and its aftermath. It's a local and national problem, with the latest data showing progress toward recovery stalling. Reversing large math declines is especially urgent.

While there is no single solution, one approach that has been shown to improve student outcomes is to increase family engagement.

My school, Mann Learning Community, recently made changes to ensure parents and guardians can help their children academically. Often, adults feel comfortable reading with their children but don't know how to help their kids study and practice math. My students made great academic strides last year, surpassing expectations, and I firmly believe engaging families as partners played an important role.

One change we undertook that other school communities should consider was to hold parent events at our school every month, rather than limiting those to a few times a year. We made them fun and focused on content we were teaching. So, for example, one evening we brought in dice, which the families took home, and we taught them how to use them to play math games involving operations like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, depending on their child's grade.

Another time, we helped make math flash cards. Families liked having resources to take home and turn to later. They used the flash cards while walking to school, preparing meals and before bedtime, showing math — like literacy — can be part of everyday life.

Another activity my colleagues and I might try this year, and which parents can easily do at home, is use ordinary playing cards to practice math. A game known as "Make Ten" involves combining cards so they add up to 10, and "Top It" is a version of the classic game "War," in which students have to compare numbers to see which ones are greater.

Sometimes parents will say they can't help their children with math because the subject was hard for them in school or they learned it differently. That's a great opportunity for me to talk about embracing and modeling a growth mindset and share parent resources within our curriculum.

Of course, conversations between teachers and parents aren't always easy. Sometimes parents aren’t happy with how things are going in school. As educators, we have to be open to hearing parents and caregivers out and responding to their concerns in meaningful ways. And, given the degree to which COVID-19 disrupted education and impacted learning, educators have to also be willing to deliver tough news to families.

It's essential we always bring clear and meaningful data to these conversations. It's one thing to say a child is behind— it's another to show someone that their child should know 200 math facts but only knows 20.

Schools can do more to ensure data-rich conversations are taking place. Nationally, parents aren’t adequately informed about where their kids are academically. Among those who thought the pandemic had a negative impact on their kids' academic achievement, more than half thought it was only temporary, according to a Pew survey. And a survey by the nonprofit Learning Heroes found that nine out of 10 U.S. parents think their children are at or above grade level, which we know isn't true.​​​​​​​

By being honest, and leading with data, teachers can empower parents to be real partners in helping to ensure all children receive the educational opportunities they need.

Candice Jackson teaches third grade at Mann Learning Community. She is the 2023-24 Michigan Teacher of the Year, and helps deliver professional development in math instructions to teachers nationwide through Great Minds, the publisher of the Eureka Math curriculum, used in Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Link to original story can be found here (story is behind paywall).