The expansion of a parent-involvement strategy in which teachers make scheduled visits to their students’ homes promises to yield insights into how those visits might be used to improve outcomes for students and sustain engagement by parents in their children’s academics.
Though the economic downturn has affected some of the expansion, districts, philanthropists, and teachers’ unions have poured funding into a variety of new teacher home-visit projects over the past five years. Many of them are taking steps to track the results of their efforts, determine their impact on student behavior and academics, and make adjustments to the programs along the way.
Among them is the Denver district, where Superintendent Tom Boasberg this school year committed $100,000 from the general fund—supplemented by Title I dollars for disadvantaged students—to expand a teacher home-visit program from five to 23 schools in 2011-12.
“We can see there’s tremendous value in these visits, but quantitative data matched with qualitative data gives us the truth, and that’s what we’re after,” said T. Jason Martinez, the deputy of academic operations for the Denver district, who is helping track the data generated from the new program.
Begun in 1998 in the Sacramento, Calif., area, teacher home-visits are based on a common-sense idea: Parents are more likely to be engaged in their son or daughter’s progress through school if they feel that they have a real partner, not a remote authority figure, in their child’s teacher.
Details of the programs vary by community, but the basic approach consists of a duo of teachers who make at least two scheduled visits to the home of a student—usually in elementary or middle school—to meet with his or her parents.
The first visit is made purely to establish a relationship with the parents, to learn about the child’s hopes and aspirations, and to gain insight into factors that may be affecting student performance.
“There is a gold mine of information in that home—whether it’s fully furnished or whether they don’t have electricity,” said Karen Kalish, a philanthropist based in St. Louis who has led the creation of teacher home-visit programs in several Missouri districts.
For example, just one visit home can help a teacher understand that a particular student doesn’t have a desk or a place to do homework.
“The teacher can now do something different with the child, instead of sending homework home and getting mad when it’s not done,” Ms. Kalish said.
During the second visit, which takes place somewhat later in the school year, the teacher provides academic feedback to parents. The idea is to enlist each parent as a “co-teacher,” who can help with goals for reinforcing lessons, whether it means reading aloud three times a week or helping with division flashcards.
Teachers are paid a per-visit stipend or at the extra rate specified in their contracts.
To an extent, home-visit projects have waxed and waned with budget cycles. It is especially the case in California, where the state legislature appropriated funding to scale up the Sacramento model to other locations three times between 1999 and 2005. Many of those programs have disappeared as funding dried up.
But as teachers have come increasingly under the spotlight to demonstrate results, having a partner at home is intuitively appealing to many and promoting new interest among educators.
“Teachers today cannot close these gaps by themselves, it’s just not doable. You need those partnerships to really make those gains,” said Nancy Fong, a teacher at Earl Warren Elementary School in Sacramento, who does home visits. “What’s important to me is that they speak education talk at home, support their children in the home, read to them. ... I can handle it at school, but I need for them to really support me at home.”
Teachers’ unions have helped to seed several new examples. The National Education Association Foundation has provided setup money for the idea in Seattle, Springfield, Mass., and Columbus, Ohio, as part of its Closing the Achievement Gaps philanthropy; other sites participating in the NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign are taking similar steps, while affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers have created programs in communities such as St. Paul, Minn.
Philanthropy has also played a role. In the District of Columbia, the Flamboyan Foundation has helped to train more than 400 teachers.
Carrie Rose, the executive director of the Sacramento-based Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project, a nonprofit that helps oversee the program in that area and has provided training to educators in Washington and a dozen other states, believes recent developments in education policy are also fueling interest in the idea.
“There is a heightened interest in parent engagement. And the other reality is, I think it’s just so hard right now,” she said. “It’s a painful time in public education; there are shortfalls; there’s infighting around who’s responsible, and at the end of the day, for the folks at the ground level, it’s important we have something we can do together.”
Several of the new examples differ from earlier efforts in taking a systematic approach to studying and learning about the model.
In general, research links family engagement in a child’s education to school success. One recent study by the Consortium for Chicago School Research, based on more than 15 years of data from Chicago schools, found that creating opportunities for family engagement and linking improvement goals to the community is one of the top five ingredients for school improvement. (“Chicago Study Teases Out Keys to Improvement,” Jan. 27, 2010.)
While several researchers have also examined the Sacramento home-visiting program at the elementary and high school levels, some scholars say more research in general on teacher home visits is needed.
“I haven’t seen enough studies measuring particular outcomes that could be linked to the structure or nature of the home visit,” said Joyce L. Epstein, the director of the National Network of Partnership Schools, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which helps communities use research to improve family engagement. “The ones I know of are from the preschool level.”
Ms. Epstein underscored that home-visit programs generally don’t reach all students, so they can’t substitute for comprehensive family-engagement efforts. (It is left up to participating schools and teachers to determine how many and which families to visit; on principle, most of the programs’ leaders say all families should be eligible, not just poor or minority ones.)
And she added that a gap in the research on the home visits is developmental in nature—in other words, studies that help determine the specific features and practices of home visits that lead to effective parent engagement.
“The home visits have to be very carefully planned with an agenda and information—when and why, with whom, and at what cost,” Ms. Epstein said.
Several of the flourishing teacher home-visit programs are working to institute data collection that will allow for such research.
The Denver program collects both information from teachers uploaded to the student-information system and information from school officials on the number of visits per teacher and cross-tabulates it with data from individual student records. Over time, the data will be longitudinal, Mr. Martinez said.
The director of research training in the district’s department of parent and community research, Patsy J. Roybal, has a litany of questions she hopes the data will be able to answer in several years: whether student achievement is up and behavior referrals are down, whether parents who have received visits become involved in school governance, and whether teachers who are participating have higher rates of parent attendance at their parent-teacher conferences.
And finally, Ms. Roybal said, she hopes the data will help ensure the program is sustained.
“I think the biggest factor will be our ability to document, and put in a strong evaluation process, so that we can demonstrate that we actually are seeing success,” she said.
Among the most data-rich new examples is Home Works!, begun by Ms. Kalish, the philanthropist, in 2006. The project works with the St. Louis school district and several suburban ones that receive students through the city’s voluntary-busing program.
The group conducts an annual evaluation based on surveys of teachers, parents, and students and data from state tests, attendance records, and disciplinary referrals.
Ms. Kalish’s group has used the information to expand on the basic home-visit model and to strengthen the training provided to participating teachers. Training now involves role-playing, scripting, and how to handle any number of potential occurrences—if parents want their child to be present, if they ask for money, or if they offer refreshments. In addition to the visits, Home Works! includes two family dinners at school, which offer additional opportunities for parents to hear from teachers about the visits, and vice versa. Getting parents to attend the dinners, which occur after each home visit, is a challenge.
Ms. Kalish calls it the “Can You Come?” discussion. “We say to the mom, ‘We’re having a dinner at school, can you come?’ And she’ll often say, ‘I have four kids, I can’t come,’ and we say, ‘Bring them all—can you come? We’ll send transportation; it’ll wait for you and take you home.’ ”
The National Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project is also thinking about how it can scale up evidence about home visits.
While individual sites affiliated with the network continue to collect their own data about the home visits, “it is expensive and limiting to only conduct local evaluations when our work is connected nationally,” Ms. Rose, its executive director, said.
The organization is securing foundation funding for a national study that would examine the impact of the visits for teachers, parents, and schools in up to five communities. It hopes to put out a request for proposals early next year.
Ms. Kalish, meanwhile, has had inquiries from educators in places as far away as Rochester, N.Y., and Compton, Calif., interested in setting up a home-visit program. But she’s holding off until she’s convinced her team has the details of the visits down pat.
“We want to have a very good foundation—we want to go deeper before we go broader,” she said. “This is tough stuff, and we need the data.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as Through Home Visits, Teachers Recruiting Parents as Partners