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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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As we honor our presidents and country today, let us take a few minutes to reflect on the importance of leadership and what it means for family engagement in particular. In this country’s history, leaders have not been afraid to depart from the received wisdom if a different solution is required for the common good. Upon signing the peace treaty with Britain, George Washington formally handed control of the military to Congress. The American Revolution & Founding Era blog describes this act as ”one of the very few times in history that a person with such immense power voluntarily walked away from it.” In a time of confusion and conflict, Abraham Lincoln used the force of his voice and the power of his office to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which clarified the goals of the Civil War to both preserve the union and usher in the freedom of slaves. 

Photos of leaders in family engagementSince 2011, the FINE Newsletter has recognized our own visionary leaders―in education policy, research, and practice―and the steps they are taking to counter the haphazard, “add-on” mindset that has plagued family engagement policies and practices. Through their efforts, we now approach family engagement in a systemic way, recognizing the fundamental part that it plays in education reform efforts. As Anna Hinton of the U.S. Department of Education has noted, “We need to move beyond thinking of family engagement in terms of just individual programs, yearly parent–teacher conferences, or the occasional spaghetti dinner…family engagement is a subsystem of our broader education reform efforts and neither one can properly function on its own.”

Below are examples of the important roles that leaders have played in the evolution of family engagement in this country.

Lyndon Johnson, by waging the War on Poverty, offered a daring proposition: to combat disadvantage through economic measures and support of early childhood education through the federal Head Start program. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Head Start, a time to celebrate the program’s leadership in advancing the important roles of families in children’s development. Kiersten Beigel from the Office of Head Start tells us, “Over the years, we have learned that two things really drive change and effective family engagement in programs. First, family engagement must be made a priority throughout the organization. Second, we know that relationships propel our ability to achieve effective family engagement, especially in partnership with families and within the cultural context of communities.”

Researchers Eric Dearing and Steve Sheldon work to balance the intuitive appeal of family engagement with solid research and robust data. Beyond acknowledging the gut feeling that family engagement is a good thing to do, their separate research projects suggest two ways to avoid random, “afterthought” efforts:

  • a standardized set of practices that foster family, school, and community partnership to support an individual child’s strengths and address needs; and
  • a commitment to family, school, and community partnership as a core aspect of the school’s mission and functioning as an institution.

Rather than accepting a one-size-fits-all approach, leaders promote collaborative ways to gain ownership and inspire relevant solutions. Zakiyah Ansari believes in investing in parent advocacy and leadership to yield sustainable efforts to promote educational equity. By mobilizing parents, her community-based organization and other advocacy groups successfully prevented state education-related budget cuts that would have affected New York City’s high-poverty communities. Mishaela Durán reminds us of the importance of empathy in any effort to lead change. Her experience in juvenile justice offers profound examples of how system shifts can happen when agencies work from a deep understanding of family strengths and engage families in decision making.

Family engagement advocates seek to overcome negative judgments about families and to dismantle random approaches to serving their needs. Here are four lessons that address these issues.

1. Create opportunities for parent-generated solutions.
Ken Smythe-Leistico
employs a collaborative approach to show that parent solutions matter:

After reviewing pages of nationally suggested transition activities—which included forums, tours, workshops, and other orientation activities that were deemed too impersonal—several parents pointed out that none of the items listed met their families’ needs, nor were they the types of activities they would enjoy.… a parent suggested including the lone pizza shop that delivered to an isolated public housing community in their advertising efforts for kindergarten registration. As enrollment numbers soared, parents responded that the advertisements on pizza boxes were the biggest reason they were aware of registration dates.

2. Level the playing field by sharing relevant information with families.
Trise Moore offers districtwide workshops to equip families, especially those disadvantaged by race and income, with the information they need to navigate the school system successfully:

Meaningful family engagement is about much more than just disseminating various pieces of information about student and school performance. It’s about helping families understand how to plan for their students’ long-term academic success, how to expose their students to a variety of positive learning opportunities that may not always be provided through the school system, and how to ask the right questions of the right people.

3. Use data to move parents to action.
Sandra Gutierrez
embeds data sharing in parent leadership development:

A cornerstone of popular education … is the importance of sharing local data with parents to inform them about their local schools. These data include National Assessment of Educational Progress scores and rates of literacy, graduation, and obesity within the community, along with information and activities that parents can use to take positive actions every day in support of their children’s healthy development and education. If parents learn that close to 50 percent of neighborhood children are not reading at grade level in third grade—making it four times more likely that these children will drop out of high school—they are compelled to act to help address this problem...informed parents are powerful agents of change in closing the opportunity gap.

4. Build the capacity of teachers to work with families.
Helen Westmoreland
supports the family engagement work of schools and districts through the Flamboyan Foundation’s grantmaking:

Teachers are experts in real-time student learning and performance, and are the main people inside schools with whom families want to have a relationship … It is through classrooms that we reach all parents, even the most hard to reach, in systemic, student-centered, and learning-focused ways.

At Harvard Family Research Project, we do our part to understand what is and to envision what can be. We strive to transform the idea that family engagement is only about supporting what happens in school. Rather, family engagement is important anywhere and anytime children learn. One of the biggest challenges in education lies in the disparities—based on race and class--in children’s access to the resources and opportunities that promote learning. Research about the value of afterschool programs and libraries affirms that “restoring opportunity” for underserved children requires two-generational solutions. All children need exposure to rich learning environments in school and beyond the classroom, and family engagement in its many forms―from enrolling children in structured afterschool activities to reading with them at home―is necessary wherever and whenever children learn.

The legacy of our nation’s presidents should inspire us to make the decisions and take the actions that contribute to the common good. We invite you to reflect on your work with families and how your leadership values promote their important role in their children’s success.

Over the coming year, we will continue to talk with leaders and share their efforts to transform family engagement. We invite you to send us information about individuals and organizations that you think we should contact.

Follow @HFRP and these family engagement leaders on Twitter:
  @zansari8 Zakiyah Ansari   @USedgov Anna Hinton  

@HeadStartgov  Kiersten Beigel
@FWPS210 Trise Moore
  @Eric_Dearing Eric Dearing   @JohnsHopkins Steve Sheldon
  @CAEPupdates Mishaela Durán   @OfficeChildDev Ken Smythe-Leistico
  n/a Sandra Gutierrez
  @FlamboyanDC Helen Westmoreland

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project