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

Voices from the Field

Steve Sheldon, PhD, is a Research Scientist with the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University, an organization that conducts and disseminates research on school–family–community partnerships, and is Director of Research with the National Network of Partnership Schools, a group that provides professional development to help schools, districts, states, and other organizations strengthen their family involvement efforts. In this article, Sheldon shares how research-based school–family–community engagement practices can play a vital role in education reform.

With several decades of research confirming that students perform better in school when their families are engaged in their learning, the field of family and community engagement is poised to engage in a new conversation about how school, family, and community partnerships fit into the educational landscape. At the heart of this issue is whether or not schools’ and teachers’ practices can engage family and community members in students’ learning, and whether school–family–community partnerships translate into improved student motivation and achievement. Until more research demonstrates this, integrating these partnerships into educational practice and policy will be difficult. My vision is that the field will develop a strong evidence base to support a transformation in the way that educators view their work, and to ensure that school–family–community partnerships play a vital role in education reform.

In my work with the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS), I have had numerous opportunities to speak with educators who are working hard to make family and community engagement an integral part of their work with students. In practice, strong school–family–community partnership programs use teamwork to plan and implement family and community involvement practices. These teams are comprised of parents, teachers, school administrators, and community members, and are responsible for planning and implementing activities in support of school improvement goals.  Having these teams write annual plans that align with school goals helps to move this work from an “add-on” to an integrated strategy that schools use to improve student learning.

We know that contextual factors facilitate the development and implementation of strong partnership programs. For family engagement to move from a set of practices into a strong program connected to student learning, this work needs the support of the school principal and district-level administrators, as well as evaluations that allow all partners to reflect upon implemented practices intended to engage students’ families and community. NNPS has helped produce an evidence base showing that school–family–community partnerships can be an important component in how educators approach their role as professionals. NNPS recommends, for example, that districts maintain a full-time staff person who is responsible for working with schools, both to help organize partnership teams and to keep this work on the minds of school leaders. In this conceptualization, the district’s role shifts from simply monitoring schools towards facilitating schools’ efforts to engage all family members in students’ learning. Though progress is being made in this regard, change is not happening as quickly as I would hope.

As a researcher in the field of school–family–community partnerships, I am working to establish a research base on the development and effects of the implementation of school programs that work to engage families and community partners.  I am currently planning to conduct a validation study of the NNPS program. This project would develop a much-needed instrument to assess how well schools use teamwork, align their family–school–community partnerships program with school improvement goals, and meet the challenges of involvement in order to help improve students’ academic engagement and achievement. This type of study is an important next step for the field of family and community involvement: It will begin to address questions about the extent to which educators’ efforts to engage families can improve student outcomes, and help inform how we collect data about partnership activities in schools. 

Also with the NNPS, I am working with schools and school districts to educate teachers and principals on best practices for family and community engagement and how to incorporate these into their own practice. At the annual NNPS Leadership Development Conference, I lead sessions on a variety of topics, including involving fathers in children’s schooling, the principal’s role in developing strong partnership programs, and how to evaluate partnership programs. These professional development sessions not only provide educators with the opportunity to apply research about partnerships to their own work, but they also provide participants an opportunity to share information and network with other colleagues.     

By and large, educational practitioners and policymakers have not integrated a vision of school–family–community partnerships into the process of learning and instruction. Given that the current educational policy climate in the U.S. emphasizes accountability and “data-driven” decision making, the fact that schools are neither required nor encouraged to collect data about their efforts to engage families, or the extent to which families are partners in their children’s education, is problematic. As a result, schools and school districts lack the capacity to engage in data-driven decision-making processes with regard to the engagement of families and community partners. This includes assessing the degree to which partnership efforts are increasing involvement or leading to improved student outcomes.

As a member of the National Family, School, and Community Engagement Working Group, I am working with a diverse set of partners to engage national policy leaders and to promote data-driven, systemic, school, family, and community partnerships in schools throughout the U.S. The Working Group is committed to the development of measures and identification of indicators that can be used to help establish family and community engagement in schools as a core element of educating students from birth through college. The importance of family engagement for students’ learning and development has been well established through decades of research. The next step for our field is to demonstrate how effective school–family–community partnerships translate into improved student motivation and achievement, and the development of meaningful indicators will help move us in this direction.

For more information on how Dr. Sheldon and his 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