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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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FINE Newsletter, Volume V, Issue 1
Issue Topic: New Directions for the New Year

Guest Commentary

Bill Jackson is the founder and CEO of GreatSchools, a leading nonprofit that helps parents get the best education possible for their children.

After graduating from college, I had the opportunity to teach in both the United States and China. In both countries, I saw how family expectations and support had an enormous impact on student success.

Then, as a technology entrepreneur in the 1990s, I recognized that the Internet had extraordinary potential to engage and support parents in their quest to get a great education for their children. I founded GreatSchools to tap the power of the Internet to help parents be more effectively involved in their children's education.

Today, GreatSchools is the leading national source of information about K-12 schools for parents, with a reach into nearly half of American families with K-12 children. We are innovating technology-fueled approaches to informing parents about schools and drawing them into deeper engagement with their children’s education.

I’d like to take this opportunity to share a vision of the future of education and parent engagement in the United States from my perspective as an entrepreneur, educator, and technologist. My goal is to challenge all of us involved in the family engagement field to think more expansively about our roles and the potential of our impact than we have.


Let’s fast forward 30 years to 2043. Today’s kindergarteners are now 35 years old.

America is doing just fine, thank you. It took nearly a decade for us to truly recover from the 2008 financial crisis, but recover we did. Along the way, we got our fiscal house in order, reforming federal entitlement programs and invigorating the economy.

China’s economy is larger than ours now, but the two economic superpowers are managing to co-exist. Global warming is causing major problems, but a combination of new technologies and increased global collaboration is providing hope that the crisis will be managed.

Things weren’t looking very good in America a generation ago. Why the turn for the better?
A lot of things, but not least was a turnaround in education, starting with parents themselves.

“I think we’re facing an education crisis in this country,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had said back in 2012. “We don’t have enough parents demanding change and demanding all of us to do more.”

But later in that decade, parents did begin to demand more from their children and schools.

It started to become clear to American parents that their children would not have a bright future unless they got an education that was significantly better than the one that they themselves had gotten 30 years before. The new Common Core State Standards helped parents understand the kinds of skills their children needed to master in order to have real opportunities in a 21st century, global society. For example, their children would need to comprehend texts and mathematical concepts that were more complex than those of the past.

When new tests tied to the Common Core were released in the middle of that decade, student proficiency rates dropped dramatically. Some parents objected to the tests, but the majority demanded that their children’s schools prepare their children to meet these standards.

Parents began to set the bar higher at home, too. At the beginning of the 21st century, only about half of parents read to their young children daily, and almost two thirds of 13- to 15-year- olds had TVs in their bedrooms. In contrast, by 2025, nearly all parents of young children read to them daily, and far fewer 13-15 year olds had TVs in their bedrooms.

Even better news: more 13-year-olds were reading for pleasure daily than they had been previously, mostly on their e-readers. At the same time that TV was losing its influence on kids, the use of other forms of digital media as meaningful learning tools was increasing. Teachers and parents were collaborating to engage children in digital learning activities, apps, and games that helped them catch up when necessary and zoom ahead when possible. The use of digital media wasn’t a panacea for learning gaps, but it was definitely helping.

Parents also got new tools to help manage their children’s education. By 2025, most families were at the nexus of a new education data landscape. Schools, parents, afterschool programs, digital learning activities, and summer programs were all providing insight into what—and how—children were learning. Parents were able to access this information to better understand where their children were excelling, where they were facing challenges, and how they could benefit from their parents’ support across these different domains. Everyone was benefitting from the insight and the collaboration that this rich data ecosystem permitted.

Thanks to the work of scholars like Angela Duckworth and journalists like Paul Tough, parents and teachers knew that education was about much more than just facts and skills. Character mattered just as much. Supported by social entrepreneurs working at the intersection of parenting and education, parents rich and poor got better at cultivating persistence, curiosity, kindness, and other character traits that enable people and nations to thrive.

In short, America enjoyed a new wave of opportunity and prosperity because American parents expected, supported, and demanded better from their children and schools. That meant that new generations of Americans had the skills and mindset necessary to invent new solutions to old problems, distinguish political demagoguery from problem-solving, and forge common purpose with people around the world.


Back to 2012 and the prospects of such a scenario unfolding over the next 30 years.  What would have to happen to make it possible?

Many things, for sure. But for us involved in family engagement, I think the most important thing we can do is inspire parents to aim higher for their children’s education. I’ll leave you with the following three thoughts about how we might do just that:

  • Expose parents to new visions of educational excellence. If people have only ever eaten fast-food hamburgers, they may find the meat tasty. To raise their expectations for meat, invite them over for prime rib at a great steak house. In a similar manner, to raise expectations for education, expose parents to compelling demonstrations of student and school excellence they've never seen before.
  • Make it emotional. If you've been around awhile, you probably remember the crying Native American PSA that the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign produced. If you're younger, you might have seen a PSA from the “Meth Project.” What do they have in common? Emotion. We in the parent engagement field need to tap into emotion in similarly powerful ways.
  • Make it personal. Our research suggests that parents are not particularly moved by data demonstrating that American education is not keeping up with education in the rest of the world. But parents are moved by data that show that their own children are not on track for future opportunity. We need to develop creative ways to tap into data about children’s progress and help parents understand what these data mean for their children’s future—and what parents need to do to ensure their children’s success. 


This resource is part of the February 2013 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archive of past issues, please visit

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project