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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators

Going uphill both ways

How misunderstanding family engagement makes it doubly difficult to increase achievement, equity and college and career readiness

By Randy Olson | January | February 2022
For years—really, for decades—we’ve missed the mark when it comes to family engagement, which has made it exceedingly difficult to make the gains we want when it comes to increasing achievement, equity and college and career readiness.
Most family engagement experts have known for a while now that family engagement is broken (Stringer, 2018), but very few educators outside of this rather small circle know it. And fewer still are willing to invest in family engagement as a means of improving student outcomes.
Who can blame them? For decades, family engagement has been a rather poor investment. Countless schools and districts have spent countless hours trying to get families to show up for meetings and events and have been largely disappointed with the results. After a few rounds of this, most people (rightfully) give up on family engagement and treat it as a box to be checked before they move on to something more productive.
However, just because family engagement has been a poor investment doesn’t mean that it needs to be a poor investment. There are things we can do that have a much greater impact than what we’ve been doing.
Anyone who knows of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman’s research on the Perry Preschool Project (Vedantam, 2019) knows that investing in building family social and educational capital pays off. It pays off not only for current students but also for their children and their children’s children. Investing in effective family engagement has a significant and measurable multi-generational impact on a host of significant measures: increased graduation rates, better health, more stable marriages, higher levels of post-secondary education, increased earnings and better social/emotional skills.
Investing in building family social and educational capital worked at Perry Preschool and it’s working elsewhere. For the last few years in our district, San Bernardino City Unified, we’ve taken the ideas from Perry Preschool, family engagement experts like Karen Mapp and what we’ve learned from our research and put them to the test.
What we’ve discovered is that effective family engagement isn’t just a nice idea. It works. In our pilot program, we had first-year gains of 20 percent above average with our Class of 2023 cohort and another 20 percent the second-year. For our Class of 2024 cohort, we had gains of 100+ percent above average. (We’re awaiting second year results for this group.)
Because of the results of our pilot study, we’re working on taking what we learned district-wide so when we’re done, we’ll have a comprehensive cradle-to-career family engagement system that will give our students the best shot at reaching their college, career and scholarship goals.
While there’s much more than can be shared here, these are the foundational elements we can pass along:
Survey your students. Having a knowledge of your students’ college, career and scholarship goals is essential because this is where the families of the highest-achieving students start. Asking Pre-K families what opportunities they want for their children isn’t too early.
Help your families understand the amount, kind and level of work their children need to do to reach their highest college and career goal. Based on your students’ answers and where they currently are academically, school alone will likely not be enough. Your families need to know this.
Provide resources to help students go above and beyond what their teachers require. Once families know that their children should be doing more, they will ask for resources. Be prepared. If you’re at a site, ask district staff for support.
Measure the number of extra hours students are spending on work above and beyond what their teachers require. This is the key measure of effective family engagement. Measure it three times a year: the beginning of summer, the end of summer and the end of the first semester. If it doesn’t move, there are unidentified or unaddressed barriers.
Identify barriers to completing the extra work and come up with a plan to address them. As with any change, there are likely to be barriers. However, don’t make assumptions about what the barriers are and don’t be too quick to provide solutions. Identifying barriers and providing solutions needs to be a collaborative process.
It’s all about using the people and systems you have to build parent capacity.
In the highest-performing schools and districts, parents do what they do because they know what they know. Then they turn around and share this knowledge with their children and help them to act on it, which has a significant impact. The knowledge, attitudes and beliefs that parents pass on increase the chance that students will be more engaged in class and complete more work when they get home. As one student from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the fifth-ranked high school in the nation, put it, “We go to school because we have to, but the real learning takes place at night and online.”
Some schools and districts are fortunate enough to have this capacity in place without having to do much. Students do their classwork—and then they do a little bit more if needed. When they take a state or national test, that’s where the extra hours show up. For other districts, they have to make the deliberate choice to invest. It’s worth it.
Based on our research, schools and districts that have effective family engagement are getting at least a 10-30 percent bump in measures of achievement and college and career readiness. Or to put it another way: Schools and districts that have ineffective family engagement are having to work 10-30 percent harder just to get the same results—or worse. It’s hard to have equity if your family engagement doesn’t work.
Family engagement is worth the investment. Not because of what it has provided, but of what it can provide.
Despite these things, many district and site administrators chose other “guaranteed” ways to improve their schools. Because they don’t realize that there are forms of family engagement that have a much, much higher return on investment, they double down on “safe” investments, such as trying to improve curriculum, instruction, assessment and teacher quality. But just as with regular investments, the safer the investment, the lower the return.
Given family engagement’s past performance, it’s easy to understand administrators’ reluctance. If you’re reluctant, talk to the experts. But be careful. There’s still a lot of bad family engagement out there. If you’re considering using an outside company to assist you, listen carefully. If they tell you they’ll handle your family engagement for you, choose someone else. (There is no turnkey family engagement.) If they talk about meetings and attendance instead of systems and professional development, run.
Fortunately, the best family engagement resources will cost you nothing. Start with the California Department of Education’s Self-Reflection Tool for Priority 3: Parent Engagement (CDE, 2020). It incorporates current family engagement research and nicely frames the state’s family engagement priorities.
The National Association for Family, School and Community Engagement is a huge advocate for building the capacity of teachers, administrators and counselors to work with families. Plus, they’re working diligently to make sure pre-service educators understand what works before they reach their site or the district office (NAFSCE, 2021). Make sure your family engagement staff are connected to this group.
Finally, you can check out the SBCUSD strategic plan homepage (SBCUSD, 2021). There are research summaries, links to the CDE’s Self-Reflection Tool and a couple of Karen Mapp articles, as well as the plan itself, so you can see how it all gets incorporated. To access the homepage, visit bit.ly/FESP2021.
Family engagement is worth the investment. Not because of what it has provided, but of what it can provide. The untapped potential of family engagement is huge. It can improve what students and staff can accomplish in school while laying the foundation for significant growth during evenings, weekends, breaks and summer.
There’s nothing that works like effective family engagement. Where family engagement is most effective, schools and districts are getting the equivalent of an additional 15-18 instructional days—every year. What are you possibly going to do at your school or in your district that’s going to provide that kind of return on investment?
California Department of Education. (2020). Self-reflection tool for priority 3: Parent engagement. https://www.cde.ca.gov/fg/aa/lc/documents/priority3tool.pdf
National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement. (2021). Family engagement pre-service educator preparation initiative. https://nafsce.org/page/edprep
San Bernardino City Unified School District. (2021). Family engagement strategic plan. https://www.sbcusd.com/cms/One.aspx?portalId=59953&pageId=31963394
Stringer, K. (2018, August 6). The 74 interview: Harvard’s Karen Mapp on ESSA, family engagement, and how schools and communities can partner to help kids succeed. The 74. https://www.the74million.org/article/the-74-interview-harvards-karen-mapp-on-essa-family-engagement-and-how-schools-and-communities-can-partner-to-help-kids-succeed/
Vedantam, S. (Host). (2019, May 13). What’s not on the test: The overlooked factors that determine success [Audio podcast episode]. In Hidden Brain. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2019/05/09/721733303/whats-not-on-the-test-the-overlooked-factors-that-determine-success

Randy Olson is a family engagement program specialist in the San Bernardino City Unified School District.
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