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FINE Newsletter, Volume III, Issue 2
Issue Topic: Emerging Leaders in Family Engagement

Voices from the Field

Anna Hinton, PhD, is the Director of Parental Options and Information (POI) in the Office of Innovation and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. POI oversees activities that support alternatives in education and supports community organizations that work with schools and the community to meaningfully engage parents in their children’s education. In this article, Dr. Hinton shares her vision for transforming family engagement at the federal, state, and local levels.

Decades of research support the importance of family engagement in education, yet those of us in the field still find ourselves needing to make the case for family engagement as a vital part of any school improvement effort. My vision for the family, school, and community engagement field is that in five years, we will be at a point where family engagement is consistently recognized as an integral part of education. While policymakers and practitioners undoubtedly believe that family engagement is important, there remains a need to re-conceptualize the way we think about and do this work. We need to move beyond thinking of family engagement in terms of just individual programs, yearly parent–teacher conferences, or the occasional spaghetti dinner, to instead thinking about family engagement as a system in need of support. We typically don’t think of family engagement as a system, but we should; family engagement is a subsystem of our broader education reform efforts and neither one can properly function on its own. 

Family engagement varies depending on the environment and context, and consists of many different processes, components, and interdependent parts that all act together for a common purpose—educating our children. Family engagement is a complex undertaking: The programs and strategies that worked in one school district may not work in another, which is why we need to focus on the creation of a system that can support and encourage families, schools, and communities to partner in new and innovative ways that lead to improved academic outcomes for students.

My vision for the family, school, and community engagement field also includes the implementation of a more robust research and evaluation agenda that encourages innovation and significantly enhances our understanding of what it takes to make a family engagement system work. Such an agenda would not only seek to address the effectiveness of the system and its various parts (such as organizational support and infrastructure, programs, strategies, and resource allocation), but would also present a story of how to create and implement the system. This type of information would allow for greater sustainability and encourage the replication of effective innovative practices. Currently, most of the research on family engagement seeks either to examine correlation with improved academic achievement, or to evaluate the effectiveness of specific programs, ignoring the question of “how.” New research should include both formative and impact evaluations to drive innovation and continuous improvement to strengthen the system and its various components.

Finally, how will we know we have achieved this vision and made the case? We will know we have achieved this vision when we no longer think about family engagement or parental involvement as just programs, or simple outreach and information-sharing efforts. We will know we have succeeded in making the case for family engagement when federal initiatives that promote active family engagement are aligned across federal agencies. We will also know we have succeeded in making this case when states and districts, as a function of their core responsibilities, create an environment for schools—with the proper supports and resources—to engage the community and families in non-traditional ways around teaching and learning. Additionally, we’ll find family engagement as a prominent component in education policies at not only the federal level, but also at the state and local levels. These policies will invoke stronger statutory language that moves beyond family engagement as an allowable use, to requiring program applicants to think more systemically and in non-traditional ways about how to use family engagement as a strategy to achieve the overarching goals of their program. When we have made the case, there will no longer be a disjointed approach to family engagement at the federal, state, and local levels.

In my position as Director of Parental Options and Information, I am working to cultivate a common understanding of systemic family engagement. Through programs in my office—including Promise Neighborhoods, the Parental Information and Resource Centers (PIRCs), the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP), Voluntary Public-School Choice (VPSC), and Full-Service Community Schools (FSCS)—I am trying to create a national platform to share promising practices and elevate family engagement on a national scale. Two examples of my efforts to build such a platform include the Achieving Excellence and Innovation in Family, School, and Community Engagement webinar series and the National Policy Forum for Family, School, and Community Engagement held last fall. Through this work, we have fostered a Community of Practice around family engagement where the emergence of some solid products and practices have surfaced to allow us to better tell the story of how to create and sustain a family engagement system.

Internally, I am working to coordinate our family engagement work within the U.S. Department of Education, and to ensure internal alignment with our efforts. This means ensuring that we are talking about family engagement in the same way across principal offices, and sharing the same goals. Though the details may look different across different programs, it is critical that our message of systemic family engagement be united.

There is progress being made at the federal level in working toward systemic family engagement. For example, the Promise Neighborhoods initiative puts families and communities at the center of program efforts by taking a comprehensive approach to addressing their needs, from beginning to end. The FSCS, MSAP, and VPSC programs all have very strong family engagement components that are essential to the overall success of each project. That being said, there is more work to be done in striving toward my vision. The federal government needs to clarify its role in fostering systemic family engagement. While the federal government should not dictate how to do this work, we can highlight and showcase places that are doing this work well, and we can provide more guidance and support to states, districts, and schools to help them be clear about their own goals, outcomes, and results. At the federal level, we need to better articulate our vision and expectations of states, districts, and schools—which I believe we’ve started to do at the U.S. Department of Education with the creation of A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

There is also work to be done from the bottom up. Practitioners should pressure researchers to embark on more studies that can hopefully fill some of the gaps in our knowledge and inform this paradigm shift from a program model to a more systemic, integrated, and sustainable approach for family engagement. Those on the ground can steer the researchers in the field toward a more robust research and evaluation agenda that will inform policy and strengthen our understanding of how to best scale up efforts and engage families to improve outcomes for children. This bottom-up work is critical in moving the field towards systemic family engagement.

Through these changes, I envision that there will be a broader recognition of family, school, and community engagement as an integral component of educating our children. And I hope there is an eagerness to identify and scale up new innovative practices and strategies, within and beyond the policy realm.

For more information about how Dr. Hinton and her colleagues are helping to build the field of family engagement, please see the following resources:

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