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Family Engagement: A Driving Force Behind School Turnaround Efforts

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By Betsy Landers, President, National PTA

The day I first read a book to my daughter, Mary Frances, I realized how important it would be for my husband Ben and me to be involved in preparing her for school. Of course the need for us to be supportive in her education increased when she reached kindergarten and was the reason Ben and I first joined PTA more than 20 years ago.

Since then, it became very clear to me that parents and families matter. Still, despite overwhelming evidence that family engagement is necessary for academic success, there remain too many teachers and administrators who consider parents, at best, a somewhat helpful assistant and, at worst, an interference to their work.

Many fail to fully understand that family engagement is more than just a "nice thought" or "add-on" program that schools should attend to merely if time allows. Decades of research support the transformative power of family engagement. School turnaround efforts must include focused and integrated family and community engagement efforts if they are to be successful.

A 2010 study examining school improvement work in Chicago's lowest performing public schools found that success depends on five necessary ingredients. Not surprisingly, family engagement is one of them. Like baking a cake, researchers found that if even one ingredient was not in place, there was no recipe for success. We know this to be true, yet we fail to see family engagement made a priority in many reform movements.

A good example is pre- and in-service teacher and leader preparation. When a new teacher steps into the classroom, there is often a lack of curriculum on culturally competent family engagement strategies prior to "on the job training". If we know that engaged and informed parents can be a teacher's biggest asset to improving outcomes for his/her students, we should work to adequately train our teachers in research-based strategies to capitalize on that success.

A number of states, including my home state of Tennessee, are considering legislation to improve family engagement in education. One proposal would empower teachers to grade parents on involvement in student learning. But are we asking the right questions here? When it comes to family engagement as a means of improving student learning, why is the focus on finger pointing — whether it's at teachers, parents or principals? Instead, we should make an effort to build relational trust among all stakeholders and ultimately achieve better student outcomes by focusing on:

  • increasing staff's understanding and expertise in research-based family engagement programming;
  • increasing the district's capacity to support and provide technical assistance in achieving meaningful engagement;
  • and increasing the social capital of parents (especially in hard to reach communities).

As a former Tennessee PTA president, I worked with fellow PTA volunteers, our State Board of Education and key legislators to write and enact Tennessee's Parent Involvement Act, legislation modeled after PTA's National Standards for Family-School Partnerships. These standards have been adopted in more than 12 states, and PTA is working to ensure these principles are standard practice in every school, especially in schools plagued with chronic low performance. Open and clear communication, community collaboration and shared responsibility for student success should be a cornerstone of public education.

None of this will be achieved without deliberate and thoughtful actions on the part of policymakers, schools and parents. We must all work to make family engagement the first solution, not an afterthought.

Please join us! Together, we can work to empower teachers, principals, and district leaders with the expertise and resources to build meaningful partnerships through policy improvements and reforms.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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