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Teacher Training Ignores Students' Families, Study Finds

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Despite widespread acknowledgment that parent involvement is a critical factor in students' achievement, most teacher education programs give scant attention to helping new teachers work with their students' families, concludes a report released last week.

"New Skills for New Schools: Preparing Teachers in Family Involvement," by the Harvard Family Research Project, was published by the U.S. Department of Education and made public in conjunction with a national teleconference on the subject.

The researchers found some promising teacher education programs that focus on families, but they conclude that the overall picture is "dismal."

In fact, education schools now lag far behind efforts by schools themselves to promote family involvement, the report says.

The study looked at state certification requirements for teachers; surveyed 60 accredited education schools in states that did mention family involvement; and examined replicable models of preservice training in family involvement.

Certification requirements in the majority of states didn't mention family involvement, the researchers found. Those that did were vague, leaving "a serious discrepancy between preservice preparation and the types of family-involvement activities that teachers were increasingly expected to perform in schools."

New Skills Needed

Teachers need a broad range of new knowledge and skills in order to work effectively with families, the report argues, starting with a basic understanding of the benefits and barriers to family involvement and moving to specialized skills to enhance parents' participation in governing schools.

Rather than see separate courses mandated, however, M. Elana Lopez, the associate director of the Harvard Family Research Project, said she would prefer that education schools integrate a focus on family involvement throughout both their coursework and fieldwork.

The project, based at Harvard University, examines policies and practices that support families.

"Teacher-educators just had so many other things to do, in terms of compliance" with state regulations, Ms. Lopez said.

The standards of the Washington-based National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education include the requirement that education schools address "effective interactions with parents for supporting students' learning and well being." Officials at NCATE said last week that they were considering strengthening their standards relating to parent involvement.

In education schools that paid some attention to children's families, the Harvard project found that the vast majority of courses involved parent-teacher conferences and parents' roles as their children's teachers.

Minority and low-income parents in particular, the report says, may need help in assisting their children to complete select homework requirements, basic parent-education classes, or more extensive social services.

And these traditional areas, the report argues, are out of sync with policies that have helped change parents' roles, including those calling for parents to help govern schools or to participate in starting up charter schools.

Hard Sell?

"We've changed what parents do when they come into a school building from cutting out things for bulletin boards to serving on site councils," Ginny Markell, the president-elect of the National PTA, said during the teleconference.

The National PTA and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, a Washington-based group that represents education schools, have teamed up to create a contemporary curriculum for family involvement.

Wesley Little, the dean of the college of education at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, who is working on the project, recommended that graduate courses also include a focus on families.

"Our administrators are not buying into this concept and taking it back to schools," he said at the teleconference.

But participants in the event, which was seen by people at 300 sites around the country, acknowledged that the work is difficult, especially as immigration and changing demographics create a mismatch between teachers' cultures and those of their students.

Jane Mealy, a 33-year veteran who teaches at Commack Middle School in Commack, N.Y., said families of incoming kindergartners in her district have had mixed reactions to home visits from teachers.

"In some cases, it's well received," she said, "and in some, it's not. They feel like they're being examined."

Vice President Al Gore, who moderated a panel at the teleconference, said technology can help bridge some of the gap between families and schools. Voice mail, electronic mail, and other new technologies can connect teachers and busy families and give families current information on their children's progress, he said.

But participants with successful family-outreach programs also said the personal touch is what counts.

Joyce Johnstone, the chairwoman of the education department at Marian College in Indianapolis, said preservice teachers at her school work directly with families during their college years, conducting events such as "family math" or science nights and working to boost literacy among family members.

Copies of the report are available for free from the Department of Education by calling (800) USA-LEARN.

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