Addressing Obstacles to Family Engagement

Family engaging with teacher around healthy food

This essay is part of a series of responses from education leaders to a Carnegie Corporation-commissioned challenge paper on the importance of family engagement in student success.

The importance of well-designed family, school, and community engagement (FSCE) in supporting children’s learning from cradle to career is well documented by a growing body of research. Beyond the research, it is reasonable, and some would say commonsensical, to conclude that parents, as their child’s first and primary teacher, offer the most expertise on their child.

However, what may seem like common sense has not been common practice. Historically, school reform efforts have disregarded the importance of engaging families and community. Professionals responsible for this important work are frequently isolated and relegated to low-status positions. Teachers, who bear the primary responsibility for contact with families, reveal that doing so is their number one challenge and the area in which they feel least prepared. State Education Agencies (SEAs), which have the responsibility of building the capacity of school districts and holding them accountable for effective FSCE practice, often lack the capacity and expertise to support their success. Finally, from principals to secretaries of education, those with the greatest influence over policy often view FSCE as good public relations instead of an authentic partnership to support student achievement and school improvement.

But there is good news. While there is much to be accomplished in addressing the systemic obstacles to advancing FSCE, there also has been significant progress over the past several years.

For many years, educators viewed family engagement as fixing parents, and rarely considered the role parents can play in a mutually beneficial relationship. The release of Head Start’s Parent, Family, and Community Engagement Framework in 2011 and the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) Dual Capacity Framework in 2012 communicated the importance of educators having the necessary capabilities, connections, cognition, and confidence to effectively engage families.

Statewide efforts in advancing FSCE have historically been less than satisfactory. In 2011, the USDE defunded the 16-year-old, $40 million Parental Information Resource Centers (PIRC) initiative, the primary statewide capacity-building engine for advancing high-impact FSCE in Title I schools and the communities most in need. However, effective advocacy around the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), enabled new legislation for the evolution of PIRCs, now called Statewide Family Engagement Centers. While woefully underfunded at $10 million, the first awards were released in September 2018. ESSA also opens the door for families to be more involved in shared decision-making within schools. There is potential for modest progress in practice through ESSA.

Perhaps more significantly, other national associations have joined our organization, the National Association for Family, School and Community Engagement (NAFSCE), in prioritizing advancement of FSCE practice in states. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) engaged NAFSCE last year for help in establishing the CCSSO State Consortium on Family Engagement. The consortium’s goal is to build the capacity of SEAs to develop birth through grade 12 family engagement frameworks, which can serve as a road map within a state for standards and purposeful pathways to advance FSCE. The 19 SEAs participating in this initiative, serving over one-third of our nation’s students, demonstrate significant interest in engagement. Additionally, these SEAs are establishing diverse statewide stakeholder coalitions to codevelop and advance the framework. This is significant and potentially transformational progress.

The National Education Association (NEA) is examining teacher preparation in response to 2011 research which suggests that teachers’ primary fear about why they may fail in their profession and ultimately leave it is their lack of preparation to engage families. (This suspicion among educators is reinforced by 2008 research that suggests that only 33 percent of teachers in all communities believe they have a satisfactory relationship with parents. Imagine the percentage in low-income communities where poverty and other complexities minimize effective family engagement. Is that number 10 percent...or even less?) NAFSCE and NEA, with the support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, are conducting a national landscape assessment of state-teacher licensure requirements, identifying best practices in preservice FSCE training within institutions of higher education (IHEs), and recruiting SEAs and IHEs to codevelop a pre-service family engagement framework. When teachers are ideally prepared to engage families before they enter the classroom, NAFSCE believes FSCE at all levels of education will be prioritized as the essential strategy we know it is to support child development, student achievement, and school improvement.

To be clear, high-impact and systemic FSCE is in its infancy. But we finally are moving the needle for FSCE policy and practice through federal legislation, statewide capacity-building efforts, and educator preparation. Our nation’s students will be more successful because of these efforts.

Vito Borrello is NAFSCE’s executive director and the former president of the New York-based Every Person Influences Children (EPIC) and the New York State EPIC Parent Information Resource Center. Reyna Hernandez is director of research and policy development at NAFSCE. She is a former school district community engagement parent facilitator and assistant superintendent at the Illinois State Board of Education. 

This essay was first published in The 74, a publication that receives philanthropic support from Carnegie Corporation of New York.