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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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By Harvard Family Research Project
May 2002


Family involvement plays a key role in student achievement. The 2001 Longitudinal Evaluation of School Change and Performance in Title I Schools reported that active teacher outreach to parents is as important as improved instructional practices to achieve the goals of standards-based education initiatives. This finding supports a long history of research linking parent involvement to student academic performance. It also confirms the need for more widespread teacher preparation in family involvement.

Nearly four decades of work by committed educators and advocates have led to multiple concepts and models to engage families in children's education. Family involvement must be understood as multi-faceted. This document identifies four conceptual dimensions of family involvement and illustrates their implementation through case studies or status reports. The case studies, in particular, describe what it means to build the capacity of schools and community-based organizations to engage families as supporters and advocates of student achievement and positive youth development.

Although the four concepts presented here differ in the emphases on parents' acting individually or taking collective action, the orientation toward conflict or cooperation, and the locus of leadership in the school or community, the various conceptual dimensions of family involvement are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are to be viewed as dynamic templates for families and schools to carry out the forms of involvement that are appropriate to a given situation.

Parenting Practices

First, family involvement is often interpreted in terms of parenting practices, namely, the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of parents to support their children's learning at home and in school. Guided by the premise that a parent is a child's first teacher, programs equip parents with the knowledge and skills to support their children's learning and development. These programs offer parenting sessions on variety of topics such as communicating with children, helping them develop literacy skills, supervising their homework and after-school activities, and gearing them for college preparation.

Featured in our case study is the program, Families and Schools Together. This program is rooted in a set of core values and research-based theories of behavioral change for individuals and families. The values consist of building on family strengths and the role of schools and social service organizations in supporting families. The research base for the program draws extensively from risk and prevention, family support, and human development.

Case Study: Families and Schools Together
By Lawrence Hernandez


Effective family involvement programs aim to redefine the traditional relationships between schools and families and strengthen family engagement in children's development. National organizations seeking to build the capacity of local family-involvement programs need to tailor their activities to meet the specific needs of local sites and their participants. They must find ways to tap visions, talents, and creativity on the local level, while identifying and institutionalizing the practices that best respond to the sponsoring organization's goals for family involvement. The Alliance for Children provides an excellent example of how national organizations can support critical functions at the local level such as staff development, evaluation, fundraising, and social marketing.

Families and Schools Together (FAST), is a school-based prevention and family involvement program developed and run by the Alliance for Children. This case study presents an analysis of the Alliance's implementation of FAST - including the Alliance's vision, training, and curriculum, organizational learning practices, resource development, and strategies for replication and sustainability.

Updated December 2004 – Appendix C added

Download a PDF of this case study (59kb)

School-Family Partnership

Second, stemming largely from the research of Joyce Epstein, family involvement embodies the idea of a school-family partnership. In this model, families, schools, and communities have overlapping spheres of influence on student learning. However, schools have a primary responsibility for outreach to parents and communities. Epstein provides a framework of six types of involvement to help educators develop partnerships: parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision-making, and collaborating with the community. The featured case study on the National Network of Schools describes Epstein's strategy to promote more widespread family-school partnerships.

Case Study: The National Network of Partnership Schools
By Holly Kreider, Harvard Family Research Project=


Good ideas to engage families in their children's education abound. However, successful and sustainable home and school partnerships are harder to come by. In many cases, their success depends on well-managed programs. The National Network of Partnership Schools provides an infrastructure that builds school capacity to develop well-managed partnership programs.

This case study documents the National Network's organizational model to strengthen school efforts to institute family-school-community partnerships. This model begins with a strong family involvement foundation based on solid research and an organizing conceptual framework. The framework is disseminated through a national network of schools, whose members benefit from technical assistance and linkages among the national headquarters, schools, school districts, and state departments of education. The National Network enables its member schools to develop and implement comprehensive partnerships by providing prescribed and custom-tailored activities. These partnership programs are encouraged to integrate with other school reform efforts to improve their sustainability. Finally, by building a learning system with members, and by sharing findings with policymakers and other national organizations, the use of feedback mechanisms to the national headquarters works toward improving school practice and effecting national policy.

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Democratic Participation

Third, family involvement can be taken to mean a form of democratic participation in society's institutions. This viewpoint assumes that families and communities are powerful social change agents who can participate effectively in school reform. In the context of persisting achievement gaps based on income and ethnicity, education advocates mobilize parent and community groups to transform low-performing schools. The process can be both confrontational and collaborative. In this model, education advocates emphasize the transfer of knowledge and skills as well as motivational supports so that families and communities can take collective action.

Education organizations implement their vision of democratic participation in education in various ways. As our case studies demonstrate, education organizations can focus on skill development, as illustrated by the Right Question Project. This organization equips individuals to become critical problem-solvers on a wide range of individual and schoolwide issues.

Case Study: The Right Question Project
By Julia Coffman, Harvard Family Research Project


Nonprofit organizations have built a wide range of family-school partnership programs that are effective in achieving their primary objectives - getting parents more involved in their children's education and getting schools to partner with parents and communities. But for nonprofit organizations, finding ways to achieve large-scale sustainable impact with these successful partnership programs has been a much more difficult task. When faced with the question of how to scale up and sustain their work, nonprofits often immediately think about replicating their programs in multiple sites. While certainly this is one way to increase scale, the added administrative responsibilities and pressures to continuously raise more and more funding to support a growing number of sites can make sustainability harder to achieve.

This case study describes one alternative to the replication model using the example of a small nonprofit organization - the Right Question Project, Inc. - located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Right Question Project started out by developing and testing its unique family-school-community partnership approach. Later the organization moved on to training others to use it. When questions eventually arose about how to scale up and sustain size and structure, the Right Question Project switched to a strategy that increases their "reach" by expanding their target audiences, changing how they work with those audiences, and relaxing the controls on how their partnership approach can be used.

Download a PDF of this case study (375kb)

Some organizations can focus on convening and dialogue to strengthen the relationship among families, schools, and communities. This strategy is illustrated in the case of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students.

Case Study: The National Coalition of Advocates for Students
By M. Elena Lopez, Harvard Family Research Project


Family-school partnership has yet to be achieved in ways that truly represent community voices and engage the partners to work together toward shared goals. Often, partners come to the table with widely different resources, priorities, and needs, and operate from equally divergent organizational norms and cultural perspectives. Such was the challenge faced by the National Coalition of Advocate for Students in its efforts to develop partnerships between schools and Southeast Asian communities, many of which lack of familiarity with the American school system.

This case study examines how the National Coalition of Advocate for Students carried out its site development strategy in nine cities. The strategy consisted of focusing capacity-building efforts among schools, community-based organizations, and parents. Capacity building activities included relationship building, convening, training, product development and technical assistance. The strategy resulted in bridging some gaps between schools and Southeast Asian communities, but continuing challenges require a long-term process of support and re-engagement of the partners.

Download a PDF of this case study (350kb)

Other organizations can emphasize training leaders on standards development, implementation, and accountability. Equipped with school data and advocacy skills, parents and community leaders press schools for improved performance. This type of advocacy is exemplified in the case of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

Case Study: The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence
By Lawrence Hernandez


Within the wide spectrum of activities and initiatives that characterize family, school, and community partnerships, public engagement efforts are among the most comprehensive and broad-based in focus and results. Public engagement initiatives such as that of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence advocate for systemic reforms that hold schools accountable to high standards and promote the success of all students.

This case study describes the Prichard Committee's public engagement strategy, which does not focus simply on the content of school improvement. Instead, the strategy emphasizes building relationships with all stakeholders responsible for educational progress and creates a process that will move people toward change. It uses the media to frame education issues and educate the public. It also creates the structures for local engagement, building the capacity of parent leaders to monitor the implementation of education reform and to use school performance data to initiate school projects that focus on student achievement. This attention to ownership, public education, and skill building are crucial for harnessing the potential of public engagement to catalyze enduring school improvements.

Download a PDF of this case study (445kb)

School Choice

Fourth, family involvement relates to school choice, the decision that parents make about the schools their children will attend. School choice is based on a belief in the efficacy of market principles: schools that demonstrate good student performance are those that parents will choose for their children. Poor performing schools must improve or else lose their customer base and face closure. Various types of school choice models exist, such as: choosing public schools within a district; forming charter schools, which exist within the framework of the public school system; and using vouchers to send children to private schools. Another variant of school choice is the decision parents make to have their children home schooled. More information about the status of the various forms of school choice can be found on the websites listed below.


School Vouchers: What We Know and Don't Know ... And How We Could Learn More
Center on Education Policy

The State of Charter Schools 2000
U.S. Department of Education

PEPG Research Papers
The Program on Education Policy and Governance, Harvard University

Additional Resources

More information about the organizations featured in the case studies can be found on their websites, listed below.

Families and Schools Together

Alliance for Children and Families

The National Network of Partnership Schools

The Right Question Project

The National Coalition of Advocates for Students

The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence

About the Case Studies

In 1997 Harvard Family Research Project began a three-year effort to provide technical assistance to national nonprofit organizations working on family-school partnerships. Our work also included convening these organizations and documenting the capacity building strategies of these organizations. The featured case studies, completed in May 2000, are the result of this documentation. Each case study describes the family-school partnership objectives of the organization, its capacity building strategies, challenges, and accomplishments.

Substantial research has shown that family involvement in the home and school makes an enormous difference in student achievement and healthy development. Research also confirms that when schools provide the information, encouragement, and opportunities for partnership that parents seek, more parental involvement occurs. However, this research base alone is not sufficient to transform school practice or community engagement on a widespread basis. Capacity building, the activities that translate the research base into effective and sustainable family and community involvement practice, needs to be part of the architecture of change at the site level. The case studies focus on capacity building across a range of organizational functions, including outreach, leadership development, research and program development, evaluation, and model expansion.

The case studies can be used in four ways:

  • Learn about different models of family involvement and home-school partnership.
  • Understand how research informs the organization of program practices in a coherent way.
  • Appreciate the complexity and interrelation of strategies to engage schools, community organizations, and parent leaders in the work of family involvement.
  • Gain insight into the processes of expansion, replication, and sustainability.

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