Families & the Community

Harvard Project Aims To Strengthen Teacher-Parent Bonds

By Linda Jacobson — November 29, 2000 4 min read

Schools of education have a new resource to make parent and community involvement a stronger piece of their teacher-training programs.

The Harvard Family Research Project, part of Harvard University’s graduate school of education, has formed a network of teacher-educators dedicated to making the nation’s future teachers better at working with families and communities.

The new Family Involvement Network of Educators—or FINE—will work to make parent-involvement materials and curricula more widely available to schools of education. The network will also serve as a clearinghouse for research and information on the subject.

For More Information

More information can be found on the Harvard Family Research Project’s Web site at gseweb.harvard.edu/~hfrp.

“Our goal is to try to link teacher- educators to each other and to provide them with resources,” said M. Elena Lopez, a senior consultant at the Harvard Family Research Project.

Some teachers said the group could fill a knowledge gap that has existed for decades. “It’s now imperative that we include parents and the important contributions that they can make into the school,” said Jane Turner, a 2nd grade teacher at Bouquet Canyon Elementary School in Saugus, Calif. When she was earning her undergraduate degree 25 years ago, Ms. Turner said, “there was very little mentioned about parent partnerships.” But when she went back for her master’s degree a few years ago, the topic was frequently discussed.

While the network primarily targets education professors and professional development experts, it is open to anyone and membership is free.

FINE grew out of research conducted by Ms. Lopez and others at the family-research project and resulted in a 1997 report, “New Skills for New Schools: Preparing Teachers in Family Involvement.”

The report stressed that teachers need training and specific skills to build relationships with families and community members. It found that current efforts to prepare teachers for that task were almost nonexistent. The research concluded that “a serious discrepancy existed between preservice preparation and the family-involvement activities that teachers were increasingly being expected to perform in schools,” according to the report. For example, little, if any, training was provided to help teachers learn how to serve on school committees with parents; how to deal with diverse family arrangements, such as single parents; or how to help parents learn to teach their children.

Not a Natural Skill

Later research—conducted by Joyce L. Epstein, the director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore—found that deans or chairs of 161 colleges or schools of education believed it was important for teachers to learn how to form strong relationships with parents.

Joyce Epstein

But few said their programs were achieving that goal.

However, Epstein said a few have added or talked about including course work on the subject. One such place is the school of education at the University of Memphis. Prospective teachers there are required to take a course that covers family involvement issues.

Vivian Gunn Morris, a professor of education at Memphis, said working with families doesn’t come naturally to all teachers. “We figured out that teachers don’t necessarily know how to work with parents based on life experiences or trial and error,” she said.

And Ms. Epstein said teacher education programs have traditionally covered school-family partnerships only within the context of early-childhood education or special education. But now, a sense that teachers and administrators at all levels need such training is growing.

Equipping future teachers with the skills to form good working relationships with parents is actually something schools of education are required to do to meet the standards set by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

Yet it is not just teachers in training who must develop those skills. Teachers working toward certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards must demonstrate how they have made connections with parents and other members of the community.

In fact, Ms. Epstein stressed the importance of both preservice training and ongoing teacher professional development in the subject.

“Both need attention right now,” she said.

Listening to Parents

The Harvard network publishes an “e-newsletter” that highlights efforts to improve teacher training related to parent involvement. The newsletter’s current winter edition, for example, focuses on a project at the University of South Florida in Tampa, called Family as Faculty.

In that program, parents are recruited to give presentations to classes of prospective teachers. Parents describe good and bad experiences they’ve had in their children’s schools.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as Harvard Project Aims To Strengthen Teacher-Parent Bonds

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