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Opinion: 2-Way Communication Could Help K-12’s Learning Gap

Given widening gaps in K-12 student learning amid an influx of federal money for schools, reliable two-way communications between parents and teachers could help students forge relationships and stay engaged.

Cartoon of a parent teacher student meeting.
In March 2020, schools shut down across the country, and more than a year and a half later, issues caused or exacerbated by the pandemic remain. Attention has largely focused on closing curriculum and technology gaps, but I would argue that, given the scope of issues facing students, families and schools today, and the potential for devastating long-term effects, something more fundamental is required.

Governors and their departments of education should fund accessible two-way communication as the foundational investment to help educators build — or rebuild — crucial relationships with students and families.


On top of the ongoing instability of in-person education due to COVID-19 surges, many students are dropping out of formal education altogether. According to a McKinsey report from July 2021, chronic absenteeism for eighth-12th graders increased 12 percent in the last year, and of those students, 42 percent are attending no school at all. One recent survey from Education Week found that only 56 percent of educators believed that every student has adequate access to all the devices they need for online learning, and an estimated 9 million to 12 million students still lack adequate Internet access. When you remove that many students from the learning equation, or consider the general disruption and stress of yet another unpredictable school year, learning gaps are inevitable.

McKinsey found that by the end of the 2020-21 school year, students were five months behind in math and four months behind in reading, on average, compared to previous years, with Black, Latino and Asian students disproportionately negatively affected. These deficits have consequences. McKinsey estimated that pandemic-related unfinished learning could reduce lifetime earnings for current K-12 students by an average of up to $61,000. Beyond diminishing long-term earning potential, there are social and emotional costs as well. Parents are worried about their kids, and so are administrators, with almost 70 percent of school principals indicating they can’t meet students’ mental health needs with the staff they have, according to a survey last year from the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

Rather than focusing exclusively on massive, enormously expensive initiatives, such as broadband for all, we should first lay some groundwork: invest in communication tools that enable educators to develop strong relationships with the students and parents they support.


Intuitively, most people agree that relationships between teachers, students and families support student success. Every successful student can point to key teachers or mentors that helped them discover a new passion, push through challenges or hold themselves to a higher standard. The data backs up that intuition: relationships drive success.

The Review of Educational Research, a peer-reviewed research journal, conducted an extensive analysis of 46 studies which showed that strong teacher-student relationships correlated in both the short and long term with improvements in most metrics schools care about: higher academic engagement, grades and attendance, fewer disruptive behaviors and suspensions, and lower dropout rates. This was true even after controlling for different family backgrounds and school histories. The Education Trust, a nonprofit focused on equity for students of color and low-income families, noted that “strong relationships with teachers and school staff can dramatically enhance students’ level of motivation and therefore promote learning.” And many other studies show that when students and families establish a meaningful connection with a teacher, student outcomes improve.

But these types of positive, constructive relationships are becoming increasingly rare. Prior to the pandemic, a survey of 25,395 sixth-12th graders from one large school district showed that less than a third of students had built strong relationships with their teachers. By 12th grade, the numbers fell to just 16 percent, and even lower for low-income students. Things have only gotten worse since. Reversing this trend will be key to reducing learning gaps.


To place strong school-to-family relationships at the forefront of the educational experience, every school and district in our K-12 system should put communications technology in place that supports the unique requirements of K-12. This includes adherence to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and achieving iKeepSafe certification. Further, districts should not rely on social media platforms or private messaging services, which lack adequate oversight.

Additionally, we need to facilitate conversations between educators, students and parents, moving beyond one-way mass notification announcements. The ability of a teacher to communicate in a two-way manner with a student and/or parent is crucial to the relationship-building process.

Schools and districts should meet people where they are, which for nearly everyone is via their mobile phone. Delivering robocalls to landline phone numbers, sending emails and putting paper print-outs in a student’s backpack should all be replaced by two-way mobile communication.

On top of this, communication must reach everyone in the community. SMS text messaging should be an option, particularly for those who don’t have a smartphone or an unlimited data plan and are therefore unable to use mobile apps. School-related messages need to get to recipients in the language they prefer, even via SMS text messaging.

Our educators, students and parents deserve the same, modern communication experiences in our education system that they’ve become accustomed to in their daily lives.


The time has come for state governors and their departments of education to fund two-way communication across every one of their districts and schools so that our communities can thrive through stronger home-school relationships. States have a responsibility to fund the most basic operational needs and core “utilities” that allow schools to function. For instance, they fund the electricity and water that flow through school buildings, and they’ve invested in HVAC and air quality systems to support healthier environments. Two-way communication must be thought of like the water, electricity and air that flow through K-12 buildings, viewed as a core “utility” that supports building healthy relationships.

Additionally, states have been taking a more hands-on approach to funding other elements of education services. One current example is state-level investments in learning management systems. While an LMS can certainly help educators, students and parents, it becomes more effective when coupled with a robust two-way communication system that facilitates a unified distribution of learning content from the LMS. What’s more, a two-way communication channel becomes a distribution channel for delivering all learning content from the other partners in which a school or district invests.

While the pandemic has jolted our public education system and laid bare its inequalities, we do see clear opportunities to close the gaps that continue to widen. Now is the time to support relationship-building amongst our educators, students and parents. Now is the time for state education leaders to fund modern two-way communication across every school and district.

Brian Grey is the executive chairman of Remind, a company that sells communications software for schools.