Families & the Community

Parental Engagement Proves No Easy Goal

By Sean Cavanagh — April 03, 2012 10 min read
Yohana Martinez of Brookline, Mass., works on math exercises while her daughter, Isabella Martinez, 4, hugs her in a class for Spanish-speaking parents of Boston public school students at the John F. Kennedy Elementary School. The class is part of a program known as “Parent University,” aimed at encouraging parents to be more involved in their children’s education.
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Few would quarrel with the goal of increasing parents’ and families’ engagement in education in the name of school improvement. But there’s far less consensus on what that engagement should look like—and on how educators and policymakers should be promoting it.

Those questions are evident in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires thousands of schools receiving Title I aid to set aside a portion of that money for family-engagement activities. The Obama administration, among others, would like to boost the amount of money devoted to parental outreach in reauthorizing the law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Many researchers and advocates, however, say the current law has not lived up even to expectations on that front. Some say the NCLB law encourages a focus on compliance, rather than fostering creative and sustained cooperation between schools and parents. Others say it offers districts and schools too little guidance on how to engage parents in a meaningful way.

And some argue that superintendents and principals—already saddled with No Child Left Behind’s other mandates, particularly in testing—have little incentive to take parent engagement seriously.

“There are well-intentioned provisions in the current law, but the provisions lack direction and some kind of ‘oomph’ behind them,” said Jacque Chevalier, the senior policy strategist for the 5 million-member National Parent Teacher Association, based in Alexandria, Va., which supports strengthening the current law.

In many schools, Ms. Chevalier said, family engagement is treated like an “add-on,” with no enforcement. “You combine that with a general lack of know-how about what family engagement is, and you’re not going to get great results,” she said.

The Obama’s administration seems to agree with that criticism.

“The approach to family engagement has been fragmented and nonstrategic, often constituting ‘random acts of family involvement,’ ” the U.S. Department of Education said in a recent statement to Education Week, echoing a term used by other critics of the current law. What is needed, the department said, is “a comprehensive plan for bringing families to the table.”

Varied Approaches

While there is no single definition of parent engagement or involvement, it typically describes efforts to have families take an active role in students’ lives, and in the academic life of the school, said Steven Sheldon, the director of research at the National Network of Partnership Schools, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The network encourages the use of research-based approaches to collaboration between schools, families, and communities.

For years, parent engagement was associated mainly with family members’ volunteering or participating in events at schools, Mr. Sheldon said. But the term has evolved to cover an array of in-school and out-of-school activities that can prove educationally beneficial, such as parents helping children with academic work at home.

Parental engagement in children’s education is associated with stronger student achievement, and with students who themselves are more engaged in school—as shown by better attendance, higher graduation rates, and other benefits, Mr. Sheldon said. While research doesn’t necessarily point to one type of parent involvement as superior to another, strategies such as working with students at home, perhaps not surprisingly, are associated more strongly with academic gains than other approaches are, he added.

The decade-old NCLB law defines parental involvement as parents’ participation in “regular, two-way and meaningful communication” between parents and schools about academics and school activities. The law says that all districts receiving more than $500,000 in Title I aid for disadvantaged students must devote at least 1 percent of those funds to family-engagement activities, and that they must distribute 95 percent of that money to Title I schools.

Yohana Martinez of Brookline, Mass., works on math exercises in a class for Spanish-speaking parents of Boston Public School students at the John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Jamaica Plain. The class is part of a Boston Public School program known as "Parent University" aimed at encouraging parents to be more involved in their children's education.

The law also requires Title I schools to have written parent-involvement policies and school-parent compacts, describing how parents should be involved in schools and how they will take part in improving student achievement. Both sets of policies are to be developed and approved by parents.

Of the approximately 13,000 school districts receiving Title I money nationwide, about 28 percent, or 3,600, receive more than $500,000 through the program and would be subject to the 1 percent mandate, according to federal estimates. School districts can devote a larger portion of Title I funding to parent-engagement activities, and some do, researchers and school officials say.

But many of those familiar with the mandates and set-asides say they have not worked as intended.

The requirement that 95 percent of the parent-engagement money go to schools often prevents school systems from putting in place coherent strategies for connecting with families across entire districts, critics say. As a result, some schools, left with only a small slice of a district’s overall Title I parent-engagement money and little sense of how to use it, end up making relatively weak attempts to reach out to parents, through perfunctory mailings or unfocused outreach.

In some cases, schools use the money to “buy refreshments for back-to-school night,” said Ms. Chevalier of the National PTA.

Karen L. Mapp, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says the law offers districts and schools little guidance on what effective parent engagement looks like. Districts also get conflicting advice from state officials on how the Title I money can be used, said Ms. Mapp, who recently wrote a report describing what she sees as shortcomings in NCLB’s family-involvement provisions.

And when districts and schools are successful in working with parents, it’s often the result of determined groups of parents and administrators working in isolation, she said.

“You see pockets of good work in districts, in certain schools, but it’s not systematic,” Ms. Mapp said.

Moreover, districts’ adherence to the federal law’s requirements is uneven at best, said Zollie Stevenson Jr., a former director of student achievement and school accountability programs at the U.S. Department of Education. Meeting the law’s mandates for parental involvement has been one of school systems’ worst areas of noncompliance on NCLB Title I policy, said Mr. Stevenson, who is now an associate professor of educational administration and policy at Howard University, in Washington.

For years, parent engagement has been undermined by tensions between parents and school administrators, some of whom are inclined to shut families out of decisions over curriculum or school activities—or who don’t know how to bring them into the fold, said Arnold F. Fege, the director of public engagement and advocacy for the Public Education Network, in Washington.

While some administrators are committed to accepting ideas and criticism from families, others “are not honest in involving parents,” said Mr. Fege, whose organization is a network of community-based groups that seeks to improve schools and increase college access, particularly in disadvantaged school districts.

The Obama administration has proposed increasing the 1 percent Title I set-aside requirement to 2 percent, which it argues would encourage districts to take bolder steps to engage parents. (Additionally, the administration added parent and family engagement as an “absolute priority” in a recent round of its Investing in Innovation competition, noting that while it is a “critical component of student success,” there are “too few models with evidence of effectiveness.”)

Not everyone agrees with increasing the set-aside. The American Association of School Administrators supports strong family engagement but worries that raising the set-aside is “prescriptive and ties the hands of superintendents,” said Noelle M. Ellerson, the AASA’s assistant director for policy analysis and advocacy.

Ms. Ellerson said the AASA agrees that the effectiveness of family-engagement strategies varies by district. But she attributes that inconsistency partly to pressures administrators face to comply with myriad mandates in the federal law, and to the mixed responses that schools get when they try to engage parents.

The federal mandates can seem “like a one-way street,” she added. “The requirements are placed all on the schools.”

Creative Engagement

Some organizations are trying to help school leaders engage parents in creative and focused ways.

Joyce Epstein, the director of Johns Hopkins’ National Network of Partnership Schools, is the author of a widely referenced document that describes “six types of involvement,” or ways that teachers, principals, parents, and others can engage families and communities in schools, using an array of strategies rather than relying on any single approach. The network also publishes promising practices used in districts and schools to promote community and family engagement.

Schools that are serious about promoting parent involvement work around barriers that prevent it, said Mr. Sheldon of Johns Hopkins. Many schools, for instance, invite parents to come to school to talk to students about their careers—only to find that work schedules prevent many adults from attending. Schools can overcome those conflicts by asking parents to take photos at their jobs and have their children bring them to school, so that they can be displayed for classroom discussions, he said.

Engagement sometimes means “providing opportunities for parents to contribute, without necessarily being at the school,” Mr. Sheldon said.

Some districts try to reach out to parents in many different settings.

The Boston school system has assigned “family and community outreach coordinators” in schools throughout the 57,000-student district, who seek to strengthen parents’ ties with schools and their understanding of their academic and other goals.

Margarita “Ale” Hernandez, a coordinator at Boston’s Warren-Prescott K-8 School, juggles a number of duties, which include helping students and families apply for high school, and sitting with parents and translating parent-teacher conferences and meetings over special education services into Spanish, a language in which she’s fluent.

“Time is really an issue for these parents,” said Ms. Hernandez, noting that many of those adults work more than one job. And if they don’t get help with English, “it’s hard for them to support their kids academically,” she said. “They get frustrated, and it doesn’t work.”

‘Parent University’

Boston also has established a “Parent University,” designed to help mothers and fathers with a variety of skills, which include academic-content knowledge and overall parenting skills. Those sessions are held throughout the year. The school system arranges child care and meals for parents during sessions at the university, which like coordinators’ positions are supported through Title I money.

When it was launched three years ago, the university drew 500 parents, and more than 2,400 have attended this year.

Shateara Battle has taken part for three years. In one class, the 24-year-old mother got tips on how to calm her 1st grade son and help him refocus on homework when it frustrates him. Taking him outside for a short walk helps.

But Ms. Battle, who works in a hospital, says the most valuable class focused on building her understanding of her son’s math curriculum, which initially confused her because it was starkly different from the model she learned in school.

“It’s hard to help your child with math,” she said, when “even if you get the same answer, they’re learning it a different way.”

Since attending the classes, Ms. Battle has also become more confident questioning teachers about the pace and content of academic studies in various subjects.

“I was highly involved before, but now I’m more knowledgeable,” she said. Sometimes, when she’s asked a teacher about a lesson, “they look at me and say, ‘How did you know that?’ ”

Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2012 edition of Education Week as Parental Engagement Proves No Easy Goal

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