The Path to Embracing A ‘New Normal’ in Family Engagement

Our goal is to motivate a transparent, honest,
and thoughtful interrogation of what stands
in the way of authentic partnerships between
families and schools and to show the way
toward a more liberatory, solidarity-driven,
and equity-focused family engagement
practice that supports educational excellence
for all children.
— Karen L. Mapp and Eyal Bergman, Authors of Embracing a New Normal

Engaging families for today and into tomorrow will take on a new look. Conceived when schools shut down during the pandemic, it appears that upon deeper examination and reflection, the imagined boundary that has existed between home and school was broken. With parents in the front seat of their children’s learning, they gained more insight into the process at home and at school.

Family engagement, not new to education, moved into center focus of educators, particularly when research shows that parent involvement at home has more than double the impact on test scores than parents’ education level or socioeconomic status. Additionally, family engagement is CRITICAL for equity in education.

adorable little asian bot cuddling kind grandmother during breakfast at home

A new report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York highlights the importance of family engagement, as it is finally being recognized as a core component of equity and excellence in educational opportunities for ALL children. This we know, but local,  state and federal education agencies still struggle with how to create and sustain effective family engagement strategies and initiatives.[I have the perfect answer, however.] The question is whether anyone has been listening or reading through a wider lens.

In 2018, the corporation commissioned a challenge paper to serve as a call to action, titled Joining Together to Create a Bold Vision for Next Generation Family Engagement: Engaging Families to Transform Education.

This paper, prepared by the Global Family Research Project, summarized the research on family engagement, outlined a vision for the next generation of family engagement, and identified high-leverage areas to consider in building family engagement strategies. Since then, some districts have begun to embrace family engagement as a strategic component of teaching and learning, investing in family engagement departments and cabinet-level staff to guide the work. Overall, however, change in this area has
remained disappointingly slow.

The report boldly issued a call to action: PK-12 must continue to walk though the door opened by the pandemic and the new anti-racist movement and address the unspoken, unacknowledged and ignored dynamics that prevent the cultivation of effective home-school partnerships. Specifically, it speaks to the immaculate perceptions and actions toward marginalized groups, based on race, income, class and language.

The report called for a movement towards a more liberatory[free of dominance or supremacist ideology], solidarity-driven[in union and fellowship]and equity-focused[fair and just] practice. Practices are always influenced by  our ‘immaculate perceptions’, biases, perspectives and assumptions. To be guided by theory that will frame practices is to be more inclusive in its assumptions.

Traditional theories have been based upon values and experiences of a limited yet dominant population. So broadly applied with a rigid set of those assumptions, that we have been underserving a large population of children and their families at school. The key is to assume more broadly defined realities, and embrace different sets of values and customs  and strengths of people outside of the ‘norm’ and normalize them.

woman in white dress shirt kissing woman in red shirt

Expand the expectations of ‘normal’ and assume a more holistic, affirming and strengths-based approach to engagement. Often times, it is not so much that the objective is to build capacity of families. Immediate goals may be more that educators build their own capacity to become sustained authentic partners with families and their children.

In the report ‘The New Normal’, a path forward is outlined for the PreK–12 sector while offering recommendations for
systems leaders who may be seeking to infuse the historic
nearly $200 billion in federal stimulus funds to advance a new vision for their family and community engagement work. A brief outline of this new direction in family engagement and education follows:

  • Schools must reject deficit-based views of families. Attempts to ‘fix’ families take us in the wrong direction and reinforces oppressive principles, privilege and individualism.
  • The new normal demands a co-design model of engagement. This means that families AND educators must work together to define their shared experiences and challenges and then define from that listening, educational strategies that will build upon the wisdom of families.
  • Family engagement must be seen as the CORE element of effective, equitable educational practices. The partnerships must be seen as indispensable to learner success and active engagement. Families are not peripheral, but a part of the structure, which demands mindfulness, specific attention and investment from the school system.

pexels-photo-3564390.jpeg

Achieving the necessary changes will plan the effective use of nearly $200 billion in three federal stimulus bills passed by Congress in 2020 and 2021. School systems have an unprecedented and historic opportunity to invest in those high-need areas traditionally overlooked. Other recommendations include:

  • Making time during the instructional day for family engagement. Integrated into the workday of educators should be this time, protected as are ‘prep periods’ for teachers. Adding to this, I would recommend a two-generation approach to instruction, planning for family engagement opportunities with both in-school and take-home projects and assignments.
  • Investing in professional develop opportunities for educators to help challenge and change mindsets.We want to debunk immaculate perceptions and biased assumptions of both students and families. Essentially, this involves an UNLEARNING of former mindset defaults.
  • Investing in ongoing professional learning in order to transfer new learning into engagement and instructional practices. In other words, professional development cannot be a one and done process. Rather, it is ongoing.A lifetime of learning, requires time to un and re-learn.
  • Creating senior-level positions dedicated to family and community engagement. This is self-explanatory.
  • Focusing family engagement efforts on staff development. We’ve had the right idea, but we have been doing it wrong. We failed to build systemic and fully integrated family engagement practices. It has been fractured, inconsistent and has emphasized assimilation and not appreciation. Educators remain positioned as the experts and parents the recipient. Rather, it should frame itself under a mutual sharing of expertise.
  • Integrating family engagement into an equity agenda. We must remove the barriers of inequity by closing the disconnect-the ‘us’ and ‘them’, instead of ‘we’. This begins with understanding the foundation of trust that comes with cultivating meaningful relationships as partners in learning. Recognize the power imbalance and how it influences practices.
  • Developing authentic engagement metrics and policies. We want specific, measurable expectations in policies that support a liberatory vision for improvement.
  • Community engagement should be on the agendas of school boards and cabinets. In order for systemic policies and practices to emerge, the senior leaders must embrace it. Internal capacity-building must be modeled and the learning publicly shared. From the top-down approach supports equity efforts and engagement practices on a systemic level.
  • Policymakers should ensure that engagement coursework is required for preservice as well as inservice staff AND included in teacher evaluation rubrics. It should be noted that, as of September 2020, only 17 states require aspiring teachers to learn about family and community engagement practices. Less than 50% require aspiring administrators to do so. This work should be required in all 50 states.

man and woman shaking hands

This report, written in collaboration with Dr. Karen L. Mapp, esteemed Harvard Professor, clearly identifies those areas of change needed for more effective home-school partnerships and more equitable learning experiences for young learners. For more than 4 years, I have been screaming these exact sentiments in education. There is also another critical area of change that needs systemic application. That involves the curriculum and the content which at present reinforces and perpetuates a supremacist ideology.

Wrought with explicit and implicit messages to young people, the content which frames instruction is counterproductive to educational equity and social justice. Moreover, it compromises achievement potential for the most vulnerable. We can do this and turn around schools and spark authentic relationships with children, foster meaningful partnerships with families and the communities in which they live and schools serve. Let’s get to the ‘new normal’!

You can download the full report here:

 

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