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HFRP talks with five leaders in the family involvement arena about the current state of the field and promising areas for its future.

What does it take to build the family involvement field? There has been steady accumulation of evidence about the importance of family involvement in children’s learning and development since 1965. At that time, the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act set the stage for future legislation that would mandate a role for families and communities in schools. Yet, in current national and school district-level conversations about school reform and closing the achievement gap, family involvement is often not given high priority.

For this issue of The Evaluation Exchange, HFRP spoke with five family involvement experts about the current state of the field and about its future: Kathy Hoover-Dempsey of Vanderbilt University, M. Elena Lopez of the Picower Foundation, Karen Mapp of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Eva Patrikakou of DePaul University, and Sam Redding of the Academic Development Institute.1

These conversations highlighted the complexity of family involvement and illuminated ways to systematically broaden the field’s impact on policymakers, researchers, and practitioners. This article summarizes the main themes that emerged from these conversations, including recommendations for how researchers and evaluators can strengthen the field moving forward.

A Complex Field in a Complex Environment
“One of the exciting things about the family involvement field is that it is multidisciplinary and multifaceted,” said Eva Patrikakou, Assistant Professor of Special Education at DePaul University. She attributed this excitement to the field’s blend of “scholars and practitioners from education, human development, psychology, sociology, and economics, and, of course, family and community members.” But, at the same time, she added, this multifaceted membership “can inhibit growth, coordination, and a common focus.” Many of the experts spoke of this same tension: that family involvement, despite being supported by research, practice, and some federal and state policy, has not received more attention because it is not one coordinated strategy; rather it encompasses many different strategies and has been part of many different social and political movements.

The experts agreed that there needs to be a way to elevate family involvement from a whole-system perspective. However, they also noted that the intricate educational, societal, and cultural contexts in which family involvement is situated makes this challenging. Respondents used words like “peripheral” to describe the location of family involvement in relation to schools’ main purpose. They also spoke of the stresses placed upon schools since the passage of No Child Left Behind, which focuses primarily on standards and accountability. Karen Mapp, lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, explained, “Family and community engagement is often seen as an add-on. There hasn’t been a whole-hearted acceptance of the fact that family involvement is a strategy that must be seen as part of the instructional core and not something that’s separate.”

Moreover, changes in family structure and work routines over the past 30 years, as well as research on cultural variations in family engagement patterns, have called into question how family involvement should be defined and what family engagement should look like. Many of our respondents lamented that the school-centric notion of family involvement, in which parents must come to the school building, still looms large—despite growing research showing that family involvement does and should more often take place in a variety of settings, including the home, the workplace, and in the community, and that it might look different based on families’ cultural beliefs, attitudes, and practices.

Critical Elements to Systematically Elevate the Field
Five common themes emerged from our conversations about critical elements for moving beyond these complex challenges and systematically elevating the family involvement field in order to increase awareness among policymakers, researchers, and evaluators.

1. Developing a community of practice. All respondents agreed that the field needs a coordinated and collaborative community of practice—that is, a central setting for constituents to come together for nationally focused conversations about professional research and practice. Kathy Hoover-Dempsey, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt University, noted, “As academics, our field gets divided, and we tend to work with people largely within our main discipline.” She and others made clear that the field needs to adopt a fresh and more collaborative working style.

To that end, Hoover-Dempsey proposed a possible model: “The NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development should be our example. What this project did was support the convening of key interdisciplinary researchers and, in some circumstances, policymakers and thinkers from a variety of perspectives. The study brought them around a conference table that was national in its orientation and said, ‘We’re working on this together.’ Consequently—with significant and longitudinal funding—we now have collective, substantial, and reliable knowledge of the impact of childcare on children’s development. This is what the family involvement field needs.”

Indeed, all of our experts mentioned the need for a community of practice that would not only bring together the field’s varied constituents, but also become an active location for advocacy and policy efforts.

2. Fomenting a movement. Many of the experts we interviewed expressed the belief that the family involvement field cannot be built from the top down but rather requires a coconstructed grassroots component involving families, communities, and schools. Unlike many other education movements, such as the effort to abolish segregated schools and classrooms, the family involvement field has not yet become a movement with self-sustained demand and force. Many of the field leaders spoke of the importance of grassroots-level stakeholders coming together to demand and foment change. Key to building this movement, Hoover-Dempsey suggested, is “harnessing the energy and the resources that all families have.”

M. Elena Lopez, former senior consultant to HFRP and currently Senior Project Manager at the Picower Foundation, similarly envisioned leadership for this movement as coming from parents. She explained, “When you talk about leadership, it needs to be about parent leadership. The gatekeeper to parent involvement is too often the principal. We need to reverse the situation so that parent involvement comes from parents saying, ‘This is important.’ That type of parent leadership would potentially make the schools more open to parent involvement and create a better partnership between the parents and the school, allowing parents’ issues and concerns to be addressed.”

Sam Redding, executive director of the Academic Development Institute, built on the notion of grassroots change by focusing on the bidirectionality of leadership. “We need leadership that comes from both directions on a two-way street. Schools need to take the lead in reattaching themselves to the community. But if schools rally the troops, we need to make sure we are clear about what we want and expect parents to do. For the most part, schools don’t have the problem of parents lining up at the door, demanding more involvement. We need to see more engaged parent interest and demand for involvement, in a constructive way.”

Regardless of the origin of the leadership, our experts agreed that families constitute a strong component of the developing family involvement movement and that demand from their side would strengthen and elevate the field substantially. Thus, building the family involvement field requires supporting and giving voice to all its constituents, especially those who have historically had less opportunity to be heard.

3. Funding and investing in infrastructure. A third theme was the need for stronger funding and infrastructure for family involvement at the school and district levels—the locations where family involvement takes place. “We see some funding here and there, but it’s at the state’s discretion or at the district’s discretion, and many times the funding doesn’t necessarily trickle down to the schools the way the law intended it to,” said Eva Patrikakou. Experts commented on the need to build capacity at the school and district levels through substantial line items in both school and district budgets for efforts that go beyond a few open house events or the hiring of part-time professionals. This can include creating positions for family liaisons and coordinators who can act as mediators between schools and families, and it can also include investments in professional development and partnerships with universities to provide stronger training for teachers, principals, and superintendents.

4. Conducting research and evaluation and disseminating knowledge. All of our respondents spoke about the need for more research exploring why family involvement is important and how to make better use of family involvement in supporting children’s learning. Yet, Karen Mapp warned, “We need to get realistic in terms of the research and have better language around what the possible outcomes are that family involvement will be able to produce.” Many of our experts echoed this warning and offered their own perspectives on how to do it.

Kathy Hoover-Dempsey noted that, to elevate the field, the next generation of research must be theoretically grounded, giving attention to motivators, mechanisms, and short-term outcomes that support learning, such as the skills, attitudes, and work habits that promote long-term school success. These studies must then push forward to show how these aspects of learning are amenable to direct parental influence during involvement activities. In short, researchers must develop and test theories while at the same time embracing longitudinal quasi-experimental and experimental designs, short-term evaluations of effective practices for programs that can go to scale, and cost–benefit analyses. As many of our experts suggested, researchers must strive to broaden the indicators of family involvement’s impact beyond achievement test scores and grades. These indicators can include, but are not limited to, social and emotional aspects of children’s development, longer term effects of schooling such as retention rates, high school completion, engagement with juvenile justice, employment rates, and postsecondary education.

Our experts agreed that developing a platform to communicate and disseminate research is just as critical as generating the research itself. In particular, it is imperative for researchers to strategically communicate about how and under what conditions family involvement makes a difference and to present this information to multiple audiences including policymakers, practitioners, and parents. Karen Mapp explained, “If we don’t have a mechanism to really expose these folks to the research that’s out there and its importance for student learning, then I’m not sure what we can expect in terms of going to scale.”

Sam Redding spoke of the need to be more intentional and more specific about the language used to communicate this research-based knowledge to educators. “We need a new vocabulary. We’re always telling schools to involve parents, but we’re never specific about what it is schools are to do. This can lead to frustration, because educators may work hard to involve parents but may not focus their energy on the specific things that research says can be most effective. It would also help if we had some political leaders who could use this new, more specific vocabulary and get beyond the vague platitudes of ‘Yes, family involvement matters, and I’m going to make that part of my campaign.’ We all—researchers, policymakers, and educators—need to get beyond platitudes to more concrete language about specific family involvement practices and behaviors.”

5. Creating new visions. Lastly, some experts called for a creative rethinking of family involvement, in concert with a new vision for schools. Only through new and broader thinking, these experts believe, can real change occur. Sam Redding for example, conceived of a “radical reconsideration” of schooling. He explained that this new model can go beyond the personalization offered by charter schools, which distinguish themselves thematically, to potentially “include smaller units of organization that are more community sensitive and responsive, in which parents, from the beginning, not only have a clear understanding of the expectations placed on them, but a clear understanding of the choices they have and the individual opportunities that are available to them and their children.”

M. Elena Lopez called for “re-imagining” parent involvement. She explained, “Thinking about the next generation of parent involvement means getting a new generation of emerging researchers and practitioners to come together and think about their generation. What do they think parent involvement should look like? The new generation is the first cohort in 40 years that has been able to build on two previous generations of thinking and action in this area. New directions should be defined and determined by the needs and opportunities this new group finds critical. It can be spearheaded by the older generation, but we need to leave it for the next generation to define as its own.” Although the specifics of these new visions have yet to be determined, the need to think creatively and imaginatively is evident.

1 Interviews were conducted by Abby Weiss in October and November 2007. Our experts were asked the following questions: 1) What is your analysis of why there is not a higher priority on family involvement at the national and school-district levels? 2) What would effective field leadership look like and accomplish? Who constitutes the field of family involvement? Who should it include? 3) What does the field need most today? 4) What are the most important and most promising areas for investment—financial, political, and intellectual? Where do you think there is the most potential for return on investment?

Margaret Caspe, Ph.D.
Consultant, HFRP
Survey Researcher
Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.
PO Box 2393
Princeton, NJ 08540

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Published by Harvard Family Research Project