November and December is the holiday season in the United States, but the recently released reports on national and international educational assessments seem discouraging rather than raising the nation’s spirits. For one, the 2019 National Report Card (a.k.a. NAEP-the National Assessment of Education Progress) shows no progress for fourth- and eighth-graders in math and reading in this country; further, the results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that U.S. students performed above the international (OECD—the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) average in reading and science, but below the international average in mathematics.

As demonstrated in many news publications, policymakers and educators are seriously concerned about the performance of U.S. students, because math is the foundation of STEM (i.e. science, technology, engineering, math).

The massive shortage of effective teachers and inadequate teaching time are often mentioned as the main reasons why U.S. students cannot compete with their international peers. Yet, another big challenge for school leaders is the students’ lack of interest and motivation in learning math/science. With the holiday season already upon us, it may be a good time for school leaders to rethink how to nurture students’ interest in STEM through family engagement.

Here are some examples of events where families engage students during the holiday season:

  • In a free “Family Coding Day” event, a mother-son duo (5 years old) successfully programmed their robot to tell a story about driving in Boston traffic; a father-daughter duo (7 years old) used a free coding app for young children to design characters and animate them by snapping together programming blocks.
  • Linda Kekelis, a Family Engagement Advisor, offers 10 Fun and Free Holiday Gifts for 2019. The package includes creating a coupon book that can be used for a STEM experience at home or in the community, planning a trip to a local science museum and checking out an exhibit or program that builds on the interests of the child, and scheduling a visit during free admission days for families.

Data about family engagement and student achievement

This year, STEM Next Opportunity Fund, an organization dedicated to informal and out-of-school time STEM education, published a white paper titled Changing the Game in STEM with Family Engagement. According to the report, parents have a profound impact on children’s learning, development, interests and aspirations, and educational and career outcomes. Sustained family engagement from early childhood through high school is associated with higher graduation rates and college attainment.

The positive role of family engagement is also shown in the recent released NAEP data. In public schools that received Title I funds for students, fourth graders who reported talking about their studies at home and using math in everyday life performed the best in math (Table 1). Half of the students were at or above the NAEP math Proficient level. By contrast, only one third of the students who reported that they never or rarely talked about studies at home reached this proficiency level.

Table 1. NAEP 4th grade Math scale score (percentage of students at or above the Proficient Level), by factors beyond school (talking about studies at home/using math in everyday life): 2019

  Students from public schools receiving Title I funding for students  Students from public schools receiving Title I funding for school purposes 
Never or hardly talk about studies at home  235 (33%)  228 (25%) 
Talk about studies at home  244 (45%)  235 (33%) 
Talk about studies at home and use math in everyday life  248 (50%)  239 (38%) 

Data source:

Parents’ enthusiasm for their children’s education experience is indispensable to sustained family engagement. The PISA data show that the more parents are interested in students’ school activities, the better students performed in math and science (Figure 1). This trend appears in both the United States and other countries.

Figure 1.
A graph showing student scores going up the more interested their parents are in student school activities
Data source:

Additionally, the PISA data reveal that students whose parents encouraged them to be confident had higher achievement in math and science than their peers whose parents did not do so. When parents cultivate a positive attitude, it helps students to meet the challenge of learning math/science. In many cases, parents do not have enough STEM knowledge and are unaware of how to encourage their child to be confident in their learning. For instance,

  • According to the 2015 Bayer Facts of Science Education, nearly one-third of U.S. parents reported that they didn’t feel confident enough in their scientific knowledge to help their child engage in hands-on science activities.
  • In a 2018 national survey about young children and science, 99 percent of U.S. parents wanted to be involved in their child’s education, but they felt that they don’t understand the role they can play in their child’s learning.

Family engagement, a game changer for STEM education

Evidence shows that parents with less formal education are less confident in supporting their child’s learning, and the confidence gap between parents may aggravate the achievement gap between students from a different social economic family background. Therefore, promoting family engagement in STEM education can be a solution to equity issues. Family engagement can be a game changer in that it can expand and diversify STEM education. For instance,

  • Techbridge Girls, a national non-profit organization, prioritizes family engagement to support girls’ interest in STEM. In 2019, 90 percent of the girls who participated in the Inspire program completed the program and felt confident that they could figure out how to learn things, and 100 percent of African-American girls surveyed in the Achievers program plan to study science, engineering, and/or computer science in college.
  • The New York Hall of Science (NYSCI), a community partner, focuses on empowering low-income immigrant families with scientific knowledge by increasing their interest in STEM. The program provides a safe, comfortable learning environment for immigrant families to communicate in their native languages and use the resources to help their children with homework.
  • Remake Learning, a network in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, increases parents’ familiarity with science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) by offering thousands of families hundreds of free hands-on events at schools, museums, parks, libraries, centers of faith, community centers, and businesses. The program aims to make sure that the benefits of innovation reach all children, especially those in greatest need.

STEM strategies for school leaders

The 2018 Bayer Facts survey shows that more than half of U.S. teachers feel that their schools should place more emphasis on science education overall, and this number jumps to 60 percent among teachers in urban schools. School leaders may want to include family engagement in their innovative ways of supporting students along the STEM pathway from Pre-K through high school. The Center for Public Education (CPE), a research branch of the National School Boards Association (NSBA), recommends four STEM strategies for family engagement:

  • Sending slips of information about neighborhood STEM resources
    Schools may prepare a short list of community resources (e.g., museums, children libraries, learning labs from higher education institutes, relevant websites) for students to take home and share with their parents.
  • Talking STEM with families
    Schools may use or create opportunities to talk about the important role of family engagement in STEM education and share stories of parents’ support in this regard.
  • Encouraging parents to positively influence their children to learn STEM
    Schools can encourage parents to foster their child’s interest in STEM and nurture their child’s confidence, using interactive hands-on activities or field experiences.
  • Mentoring parents to start math learning early and daily
    Schools may consider partnerships with local communities to develop programs to mentor parents on how to tell bedtime math stories and how to work with their children using math in daily life.

Resources from the U.S. Department of Education

  • Funds
    In November 2019, the Department announced that it invested nearly $540 million to support STEM education, including computer science. Of that total, almost $100 million are to support projects with a focus on Computer Science.
  • STEM Ecosystems
    Part of the national plan – Charting a course for success: America’s strategy for STEM education – is to foster STEM Ecosystems that unite communities and engage educators and individuals within and outside a formal educational setting. The ecosystem consists of families; school districts; State, local, and Tribal governments; the Federal Government and Federal facilities; libraries; museums and science centers; community colleges, technical schools, and universities; community groups and clubs; foundations and nonprofits; faith-based organizations; and businesses.
  • Community
    The STEM4EC community, an initiative of STEMIE (STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education) national center, aims to engage all stakeholders, including schools and families of children with disabilities, in exchanging ideas, personal narratives, and sharing questions about young children with disabilities in STEM learning.

In summary, STEM strategies emphasize sustained family engagement, and the goal is for school leaders to innovate STEM education by creating a more inclusive and equitable learning environment and motivate students to take a step forward on the path to STEM careers.

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