Interview with Rachel Rosenbaum Mandell
Date: August 5, 2019
Can you briefly describe some of the biggest challenges you face as an educator?
The list of challenges is quite hefty, but one of the biggest challenges as an instructional leader is being a successful change-maker. In the world of education, pedagogy and educational philosophy are constantly in flux and we are always looking to support our students and teachers in the best way possible. However, change takes time. Someone who initiates change faces inherent challenges largely because of mindset. Teachers, students, parents, and other stakeholders come to the table with individual ideals that are often ingrained in them. Finding ways to motivate teaching staff and build buy-in requires an enormous amount of work and is a complex and complicated process. There are so many layers to this, but I will say that once you can successfully support a growth mindset in students and teachers, there are glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel.
One of the biggest challenges that I see in my current school is parental engagement. Many of our P.S. 182 families are first-generation arrivals, with the vast majority speaking a language other than English at home. There are often cultural and linguistic barriers that have a negative impact on parental participation in school events such as parent workshops, PTA meetings or family mornings. We are constantly trying to find ways to engage parents and boost their engagement at these activities so that they are better equipped to support their kids.
You have partnered with BetaEd on two RCTs. How did you choose the strategies to test?
Our two trials were centered around ways to boost family engagement. We also want parents to feel more comfortable and be integrated more deeply into the school community and the educational lives of their kids.
Given the low rates of parental involvement and our recognition that families engaged in the school help to boost student success, we wanted to test methods for encouraging parental engagement. Not only did we want to see if we could increase parental involvement by addressing some of the cultural perceptions of parents about education and schools, we also wanted to see if simple changes might increase success.
One issue that we were having at the start of the school year was late arrivals. Although school doors close at 8 am, parents were still dropping off students after this time. I made a point of standing in front of the school and flagging down parents of late arrivals and explaining directly the importance of students arriving on time. I saw that this face-to-face conversation was successful and we had significantly fewer late arrivals as a result. I had a hunch that parents would respond to requests from school leadership, so we tested this concept in one of our trials—having school personnel telephone parents and give them a message from the principal about helping their child use the online reading program. This turned out to be very successful.
The other trial was a simple comparison of contact methods. We thought that sending hard-copy letters might not be the best way to reach out to parents. After all, these paper notices often get lost in transport home! Although we didn’t have phone numbers and email addresses for all parents, we opted to test these methods for those we did have. And we were surprised to learn that emailed announcements about upcoming events resulted in greater attendance at those events.
One issue with the typical model of research is applying what is learned through research to the front-end practitioner. How do you plan to apply the knowledge gained from the research you did?
We were pleased to learn that we could boost parental engagement through the use of technology and also by understanding the perspectives of parents. We are now considering using a messaging app in the coming school year that will remind students and parents about events and activities. We also learned that face-to-face interaction with school leadership is impactful.
Did you encounter any problems when conducting your research?
Although I have no background in research, trial development was not difficult. Working with the BetaEd team helped to determine what the trial methodology would be—what we would do and how we would do it. The challenges were related to time and effort. We had limits on the amount of time and effort we could devote to the trials, especially since our school has many challenges and we have to deal with difficult situations every day. We were fortunate that some of our staff were able to assist. For example, teachers helped to collect parents' phone numbers and emails. Although we had sent out a survey at the start of the year asking for this information, many forms were not returned, or the information was no longer correct. We were also lucky that our testing coordinator and parent coordinator were able to assist on the trials.
What do you think is the most valuable aspect of your research efforts?
It was awesome having a thought partner in the folks at BetaEd. They gave us insight that we wouldn't necessarily know or would have thought of. A big thing was that testing our hunches was important and not difficult. As educators, we often claim that we know the reason why something is happening...but we are not always right. It's certainly humbling. BetaEd helps give us a means of making our anecdotal, speculative, and qualitative information quantified and tangible. The professional expertise of BetaEd folks added capacity that schools don’t usually have at their disposal.
In doing the trials we also learned important information about our school community and parents—information that we might not have known in any other way. In the future, we may focus on other topics such as student achievement or teacher motivation.
What advice do you have for other educators who might want to pursue research within their schools?
Just do it! It's worth doing because you may really learn a lot about your students and school community. Sometimes the results of one study, whether expected or not, will have an impact on your practices and spark other ideas for future improvement. Having evidence that something works or doesn't work is valuable information, and this knowledge is worth the effort. Doing research will answer questions and could potentially improve the ways things are done.