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Over the past year, HFRP has spoken with several family involvement experts about federal, state, and local policies—where these policies have been, where they are headed, and what strategies are necessary to seize the current policy window. This article draws from a panel discussion at the 2007 National Parental Information and Resource Centers Conference and from interviews with field experts.

Although there has been some progress in the last half century, many in the field are unsatisfied with the current state of family involvement policy. What have been the barriers to date in creating sustained, systemic family involvement policies?

Arnold Fege, Director of Public Engagement and Advocacy at Public Education Network: First, our definition of family involvement has become increasingly limited over time. As the law began to evolve during the ’80s and ’90s, we turned parents from a political entity that demanded quality public education to task agents—people who did things for you, like fundraise for the school. This resulted in individualizing family involvement rather than building a collective effort around the community. This has been exacerbated by fragmentation among parent groups, as a result of the federal government requiring many specialized programs (such as Head Start, special education, and Title I) to have separate parent advisory committees, which do not often collaborate. Further limiting the definition of family involvement, market forces have recently been pushing school choice and transfer and calling that family involvement.

Second, politics have played a role, especially at the federal level. Many lawmakers do not want to spend political capital on family involvement, for several reasons. Some are nervous about taking a position on NCLB, others are afraid to endorse a federal role in education, and still others do not want to be caught in issues of power and control between schools and families. These control issues are entrenched. Decades ago, school board members and superintendents began to resist any kind of federal mandate for family involvement because the federal law began what was an “alternative” political system to the power of the superintendent.

National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education

An advocate for family involvement for over 25 years, the National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education (NCPIE) builds visibility for family involvement, monitors legislation, and shares information about research, programs, and policies. Says NCPIE Chair Sue Ferguson, "While there is still a long way to go, there has been real progress. Schools and districts are beginning to use the research, there is more parent leadership training, and federal programs are coordinating to support policies and practices."

Oliver Moles, Researcher/Evaluator at the Social Science Research Group, LLC, and former research analyst in the Office of Educational Research and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education: One of the reasons for this, from the school perspective, is that it’s often challenging to work with people who are not under your direct control. What goes on in the classroom is something you can gauge and influence, but what parents do is something out of and beyond a school’s control. As a result, many schools and districts have been loath to commit to family involvement policies and practices.

Craig Stevens, Director of Education Policy and Research at the Nevada State Education Association and former Public Policy Specialist at the National PTA: The accountability issue is an important one. Parental involvement is tough to measure and monitor, and this makes it more difficult for policymakers to justify investments in parental involvement policies and programs. Congress and the legislature try to get their hands around the concept as best they can, but it is a challenge. Currently, lawmakers are asking for more information about how to measure parental involvement, including the opportunities given to parents to enter the classroom.

Edwin Darden, Director of Education Policy, Appleseed: From the federal government to parents themselves, there’s certainly enough responsibility to spread around. Federal officials haven’t made family involvement much of a priority item—in terms of focusing on it in high-level speeches, but also in terms of monitoring practices and procedures at the state and district levels. And school districts seem not to recognize parents’ potential. Based on my recent review of about two dozen school district policies, districts are focusing on compliance as opposed to a statement of belief that parent involvement is integral. In addition, parents themselves have still not had that “dawning,” or recognition, that they have a tremendous amount of collective power. This means that they aren’t exercising their rights or the opportunities that are there.

Despite these challenges, some progress has been made. What achievements can we hope to build on as we move forward?

Craig Stevens: There is a lot more research on the benefits of parental involvement now, and we know more about the kinds of practices that can be effective and can bring parent involvement to the forefront. This research is extremely valuable, not only for improving practice, but for building a case for sustained investments in family involvement.

Oliver Moles: In addition to high-quality research, we now have effective models from programs and community efforts. Over the last 10 to 20 years, there have been certain cities and states that have taken the lead in developing some really strong activities.

Arnold Fege: In particular, we are seeing progress in parent organizing models and collective action, including the efforts of ACORN, the National Council of La Raza, the National PTA, local education funds, and many others. In addition, and maybe because of the increase in research and models, I think we’re coming into a new understanding among school administrators. They’re beginning to understand that they need parents in order to accomplish high achievement, even if they don’t yet know exactly how to do it.

Edwin Darden: Although some folks would disagree, I think that NCLB has been an important milestone. It has started a revolution by institutionalizing the rights of parents from a legal standpoint. It opens the door for parents by requiring that they receive clear, timely information and giving them the right to act on it. It now becomes about parents sitting at the table with schools and saying, “Okay, you are the experts, but we are also experts in our own right, and we can help you get better.”

Strengthening Parent Involvement Policy

Why is it so challenging to strengthen parent involvement in federal child policy? The answer to this question reveals a fundamental flaw within our laws for children. Our policies address problems, rather than children themselves. Because education policy focuses on instruction, rather than the whole child, we lack critical pieces of the education puzzle, such as parent involvement, that would strengthen student achievement.

This year, the federal government will spend roughly $25 billion through the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act to improve student academic success. This law, which focuses on important issues such as accountability and teacher quality, includes a very modest emphasis on parent involvement. However, several bills have been introduced to amend NCLB to meet more fully the holistic needs of students. Among these bills, which would strengthen ties among students, parents, schools, and communities, are the WE CARE Act (Working to Encourage Community Action and Responsibility in Education), Keeping PACE Act (Keeping Parents and Communities Engaged), and the Full Service Community Schools Act.

These legislative efforts acknowledge that children are not problems to be “fixed” in silos and that their multifaceted problems do not fit neatly within the jurisdictions of Congressional committees. Moving forward, it will take our nation as a whole to build on these efforts and change how policymakers think about our young people.

Phillip Lovell is the Vice President for Education Policy at First Focus. You can read summaries of the legislation highlighted above at

What needs to happen in the next 3 to 5 years in order to make more progress in family involvement policy?

Edwin Darden: We need to focus our efforts at multiple levels. At the federal government level, monitoring and compliance need to include family involvement as a true priority, not one that simply exists on paper. It needs to be encouraged, monitored, and supported by additional funds. At the state level and district level, policies are needed that signal to school districts that family involvement is extremely important. This culture change needs to happen everywhere, but it could be particularly effective in struggling schools. And there needs to be more focus on providing parent training. You can open the doors, but if folks don’t know how to walk through them, you’re not going to be as effective as you want to be.

Arnold Fege: I agree that accountability is critical, especially at the principal and school-site level. Building on the parent training idea, we need to build capacity at multiple levels. One of the most important, and most challenging, tasks is getting schools of education to transform their way of training teachers and administrators in a way that includes family involvement. Another important capacity-building effort is the Parental Information and Resource Centers, which serve as collaborators and brokers who bring together family involvement resources and opportunities across states. Research serves a capacity-building function as well. We are now building a collective research effort across a number of different fields, including not just education but also political science, child development, and the Department of Education’s research institutes.

Craig Stevens: A critical step now is getting that research out to Congress and other policymakers in a way that they can understand and use. Family involvement efforts need to be visible. Since members of Congress hold the purse strings, family involvement stakeholders need to be in their offices and in constant contact with them, sharing research and stories and letting them know about the benefits, the challenges, and how to tweak the law so that it benefits the families and children who need to be reached.

Edwin Darden, Arnold Fege, Oliver Moles, & Craig Stevens: For all of us in the field, having a common vision and a common agenda is critical. We’re all in this together, and we need the schools as much as they need us. The role that we serve as brokers in facilitating this collective discussion is essential. This includes bringing together a diverse range of groups who are doing tremendous work on these issues, including the National Coalition on Parent Involvement in Education, the American Educational Research Association’s Family School Community Partnerships special interest group, the PTA, local education funds, Public Education At Work, and many other local and national organizations.

Across all of these stakeholders, there needs to be even more of a concerted effort to unify the voice. You can make light the work by having many hands at it and having those hands and mouths in communication with each other. Together, we need to build a national constituency so that the general public understands the link between families and communities, high-quality public education, and economic and civic success. If the schools and families succeed, we all succeed; if they fail, we are all at risk.

This is a very special moment in history for family–school relationships and it’s one that won’t last if we don’t take full advantage of it. We need to work together so that we don’t lose the opportunity that has been presented.

Suzanne Bouffard, Ph.D., Project Manager, HFRP

Abby R. Weiss
Executive Director
Full-Service Schools Roundtable
443 Warren Street
Dorchester, MA 02121.
Tel: 617-635-6537.

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