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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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September 20–22, 2004, Kansas City, Missouri, Sponsored by Family Support America and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation

Back in the 1980s, Frank Farrow, a longtime leader in family support, asked me to come to Maryland and talk to Ruth Massinga, the then-commissioner for children and families, about family support and the evidence base that would support public investment in family support services. My response was that I was happy to come but that my stance would be that of a “skeptical advocate.” I felt that the best service that I could provide for family support was to be critical, provocative, challenging, and at the same time advocate for what I thought were fundamental services that families needed so parents could nurture the next generation of kids in the United States. I have remained a skeptical advocate ever since.

I first became involved in family support in the 1970s, when I did my doctoral dissertation on the Brookline Early Education Project, an intervention that began at a child's birth and included home visitation, early childhood services, parent networks and support, parent groups, and access to health care and mental health care. It was a fairly comprehensive intervention that then became the Parents as Teachers Program, a well-known early parenting and family support initiative.

Since then, family support as a field, as a set of practices, continues to grow in important ways. This growth is reflected in the typology of family support models that Family Support America put out a couple of years ago, which is included in the Spring 2002 issue of Harvard Family Research Project's evaluation periodical, The Evaluation Exchange.1 A family support program is described as a program that is instilled in settings such as family resource centers. These programs can also be nested in larger organizations working with family support principles that may not be family support programs per se. Additionally, family support can be a catalyst and member of comprehensive systems of community care—systems that leverage the linkages and alignments among the services that support families in a community. Finally, family support can act as a lever and a participant in comprehensive collaborative structures that allocate the resources and make the policy for kids and for services within a community.

Family support, in the 35 years I've been part of it, has increasingly played all of those roles and made itself a vital part of every community landscape, not only at the service level but in terms of linking and aligning services that parents need to be nurturant. Unfortunately there's very little dedicated federal or state funding for family support, and it's hard to attain scale and sustainability without dedicated resources. It's hard to serve the number of families that need family support services. It's hard to develop the training and other kinds of capacities we need to deliver quality services.

If family support is to survive, it is imperative that within the next 5 years—10 if we're lucky—we think through some strategies and put them in place. If not, the field may wither and languish, outcompeted for public resources by early care and education, by out-of-school time, by a number of competing service arenas that are getting and using data to demonstrate their value-added in a very public way. The reason is partly—but only partly—because we do not have the evaluation base, evaluation strategy, and demonstrated capacity to get and use data for continuous improvement and accountability that will be critical for any field to survive in 2005 and beyond.

What is evaluation going to help us achieve? Evaluation is not an end in itself; evaluation is supposed to help you achieve something. And I've got my answers to what that something is. For me, successful family support evaluation would mean the following:

  • Helping create a system of sustainable, high quality services that strengthen and support families in their parenting and nurturing roles. This would be done through family support programs and family resource centers that are linked and aligned with all the other kinds of services we know families need in order to be healthy. Beyond service delivery, family support can continue to build community systems of care and to align the financial and policy resources necessary to support nurturant communities, which, as research evidence increasingly shows, are critical to child development.

  • Achieving recognition that the family support field is a key leader in promoting families and human development. Family support has long argued, and must continue to argue even more vigorously, on behalf of parents—the key role they play and the vital importance of providing supports for them so they can nurture and raise their kids. We must create a vital field that continues to push and support the importance of parenting in the public arena.

  • Getting the resources to continue building state and national infrastructure for evaluation, learning, and continuous improvement and accountability. One of the challenges facing family support now is how to collectively—beginning with the grassroots and working up through the existing state and national infrastructure—create an evaluation and learning agenda and an evaluation system for family support. We can no longer avoid evaluation and accountability; we must therefore figure out how to make it work for us. Put another way, successful family support evaluation would foster a service system that had the capacity to show its value-added.

  • Extending the focus of family support past early childhood or 0–8 to encompass high school and beyond. This would mean reinforcing the view that parents play a continuing role in high school and beyond, and leveraging this understanding to create family support throughout adolescence.

Having laid out my own vision, I think it's important that you think about yours, and also that you begin to think collectively at your local community level, at the state level, and in national conversations, about how you're going to build a learning system for family support. I think the survival—never mind the expansion—of family support is at stake if we don't get this under control. You will also need to band together to deal with evaluation—not just with a question of evaluation but with getting the tools that you need at the local and state level to do evaluation well and for a variety of purposes that I will discuss below. You must think collectively about how to use the results of evaluation to strengthen training, to create innovative programs to deal with the diverse kids that are coming into family support programs now, literally from around the world.

I'd like now to look at some of the assets that family support has developed over the last 35 years; I will then discuss some of the challenges that endure. Family support, first and foremost, from its origins in the 1960s and 1970s, has underscored the importance of the family in early child development. In the 1960s Urie Bronfenbrenner argued for providing services to parents in addition to intervening with kids in center-based early childhood. The thinking was that having an effect on what happened at home (while perhaps also providing center-based services) was likely to result in enduring gains for kids. That particular view about the importance of families in early development has been reinforced again and again in child development research. If we know nothing else about the early years, we know the importance of family processes and nurturant parenting for kids' later cognitive, social, and emotional development.

Let me now turn to the challenges facing the field.

  • Scope of support and services. For my doctoral dissertation, I spoke to a low-income mom living in public housing with four kids under 7 years old. During one interview about her experiences in the Brookline Early Education Project, she said, “It's been great. I've gotten all these supports. But it's also been hard because they've taught me what I need to do to be a nurturant parent, and I often can't meet my own expectations with respect to that, because I don't have food, I don't have a job,” etc. Her concern illustrates one of the enduring challenges we have in family support, and why we've talked about becoming part of a continuum of care. Family support alone can't provide for all of a family's needs, but what it can do is leverage the other resources that research increasingly shows are critical, particularly for low-income families, to create a nurturing home environment.2

  • Implementing family support principles. Family support programs have struggled to make the philosophy of family support real in practice. This has meant addressing questions like, what does it mean to empower families? Should families be involved in the governance and evaluation of programs? In developing their own family plans that lay out what it will take to achieve their goals, are these programs involved in evaluation and in getting and using data for collective action on behalf of families and the community?3

  • Limited resources. Another challenge we face is competing for scarce resources while at the same time stressing the importance of being part of a continuum of care. Maintaining those continuums of care and the collaborations that are important in building a family-supportive community is tough work. We can do more to share lessons about how to sustain that work, particularly now and in the near future when resources will get even tighter.

  • Evaluation. A fourth challenge we've struggled with is evaluation. Many of you know about the government performance results act of '91, the No Child Left Behind Act, all of the legislation that insist on evidence-based programs, evidence-based practices, etc. This challenge is also a global one. A recently published book on global family support talks about the key challenge in family support internationally: getting family support programs to understand that the risks of not evaluating are growing and, in fact, are surpassing any risks of negative findings, such as losing funding.

These challenges, particularly that of evaluation, need to be addressed as we move forward. Fortunately, we have gained a set of assets—much experience, lessons learned, and the understanding that family support is only one among a number of services that families need—that should safeguard us from promising more than we can deliver. And I'm optimistic about the future. I know money's tight and likely to remain so. I know family support is fragile. I know that we need more evidence to make a hard case that we can intervene effectively and that we can scale up programs that we've shown to be effective in a particular location. I know all these things, but I'm optimistic.

For one, I think that the No Child Left Behind Act, which has forced us to think very carefully about research and pushed us to research-based practices, is also creating an incredible opportunity for family support. Community and school leaders know exactly who is being left behind. They know exactly where they live and what schools they go to. They recognize, in fact, that if they don't open their doors to other community learning resources and supports, they are going to leave many, many children behind with the added consequence of schools eventually closing—the legislation makes it clear that schools that don't improve won't survive.

With this in mind, schools and communities are now willing to look at an array of other services that have been proven to provide the supports that, linked and aligned with schools, help get all kids into and out of school ready to succeed. Family support, therefore, can play a leadership role in helping schools fulfill the No Child Left Behind mandate.

Foundations big and small are beginning to support these ideas as well. A recent survey conducted by Harvard Family Research Project has shown that many of them—many more than I had thought—are funding family support and parent involvement, particularly as it links and aligns with early childhood, with schools, and with out-of-school time services.

Developmental research offers additional opportunities for strengthening family support. Many developmental researchers are discussing what it is about parenting in the first few years of life that leads to a range of developmental outcomes for kids. This information can be used in at least two ways by family support. It can be used to argue the benefits of supporting families and to argue and the benefits of infusing program curricula with some of the lessons and information that comes out of developmental research.4

How will family support position itself to take advantage of these opportunities in the next several years? In part, we must continue to do what we have been doing with scarce resources for a long time; but we must also develop a strategy for evaluation learning, continuous improvement, and accountability to strengthen practice and demonstrate and improve outcomes. We need a strategy that will assess the value-added of each of the five types of family support articulated in Family Support America's typology of family support models.

That strategy needs to deliver four outcomes:

  • Proof that family support works. We need to deliver proof that family support works—for accountability, for sustainability, and for scale-up. Without proof that we are applying the highest standards of scientific evidence, we will not get very far. Aside from demonstrating proof, this strategy should also yield lessons about what works, which we can then incorporate to make programs successful.

  • A system that supports continuous improvement. Second, our strategy should result in a structure that supports learning, continuous improvement, and innovation. Support for learning, continuous improvement, and accountability means creating tools and an infrastructure that will support local programs in their efforts to show their value-added. Additionally—and this piece is very important—family support evaluation needs to support parents' skill development and empowerment, as well as the collection and use of data for community change.

  • Evidence of value-added. We need to band together and execute some crucial experiments to demonstrate that family resource centers do add value. I also suggest that we test the value-added of the family support philosophy. Does, in fact, delivering service in accord with family support philosophy lead to improved outcomes? We don't have any demonstrations that suggest that. While I believe in family support philosophy and feel it's key to getting the desired outcomes, I think we need to do some experiments that will put this question to rest once and for all.

  • Practical tools. We should also develop a toolkit that family support programs can use to track their own progress. In other words, our evaluation efforts need to be utilization focused. The toolkit should include recommendations for action research and empowerment evaluation; we need to document the kinds of community changes that are happening as a function of empowered parents with an empowerment approach to evaluation.

Over the next 3 to 5 years we need to commit to improving family support as a field, developing performance standards, measures, and related tools based on solid research and proven practice. That said, implementing family support principles and measuring how we're operating in accord with those family support principles, while necessary, is not sufficient. We also need to begin to specify what constitute a solid curriculum, a well-trained staff, appropriate professional development opportunities, and a program's capacity to demonstrate that it can get and use data for continuous improvement. We also need a concerted national, state, and local effort to develop a learning system within family support. An inventory of state efforts and infrastructure and a loose network of people across states committed to learning from each other would be invaluable to the creation of such a system.

It is critical that family support also consider partnering with local evaluators, including those working in universities. There now exist innovative university program partnerships that would contribute tremendously at the state and local level in the family support arena. Consider the experience of Early Head Start and its national evaluation. A key component of that evaluation was that many of the Early Head Start programs created a partnership with a local university that agreed to work with the evaluator, Mathematica Policy Research, to help implement the evaluation. But in addition, local Early Head Start programs got site-specific data and the capacity to collect new data to answer questions they wanted answered.

And finally, I would recommend working with Family Support America, which has continuously promoted an evaluation agenda. The group has supported implementing some of the steps I discuss here, adding more ideas and fighting over these issues—all things that I think are vital as the field tries to create and implement its research and continuous improvement agenda.

1 Lopez, M. E. (Ed.). (2002). The Evaluation Exchange, 8(1).
2 For more information see McCloyd, B. & Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: P. H. Brookes.
3 See also Lopez, 2002.
4 Kreider, H. (2004). A conversation with Jeanne Brooks-Gunn. The Evaluation Exchange, 10(4), 13–14. 

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