#50 – 5 Actionable Takeaways from EdX + Harvard’s Intro to Family Engagement Course

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been progressing through EdX and Harvard’s Introduction to Family Engagement in Education course.
The course served as confirmation that our family partnership initiative is guided by the best research-backed practices out there, I want to share five new takeaways realized from the course that our team will be integrating into our work.

  1. Power of Relationships – Research shared by Mark Warren, Associate Professor, Department of Public Policy and Public Affairs at McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts: Boston, shares that there are over 60 years of research supporting that people are most likely to go to events if someone they know invites them. So, although the paper flyer is a popular way for schools to communicate with parents as an invitation, principals, teachers, and other parents might be more powerful drivers of attendance with personal invites. We’ve actually seen this first hand at a recent family night event as a middle school teacher called every single one of her families to personally invite them to the family night event. She also made time in class for students to craft hand-made invitations for their families, so it wasn’t just the school sending the invitation, it was their child extending an invite to an event that was important to them. That event saw the highest attendance for that grade-level across any previous family night event, and the highest attendance of families from a grade-level from the night. For the remainder of our 2020 family events, we intend to capitalize on that personal human touch, including encouraging parent-led outreach and more personal invites, as we’ve seen first hand how powerful a catalyst it can be for getting families in the door. 
  2. Canceling the Communication Blame Game – Who should initiate the first contact? Parents think teachers should make the first move, and oftentimes teachers think parents should initiate conversation. When this mentality takes hold, no one ever reaches out—and it’s safe to assume that’s not beneficial for the student. Karen Mapp, Ed.D., of Harvard Graduate School of Education, penned four core beliefs for building lasting partnerships between home and school in Beyond the Bake Sale. The fourth belief dictates: “Responsibility for building partnership with parents, and community rests primarily with school staff.” Schools can create a culture where teachers, staffers, and leadership are taking the lead on engaging families in conversation and communication to avoid the communication blame game that oftentimes leads to zero communication, and establish a real relationship, and a bond of trust. Often families view the school as a place that is intimidating or have fear or negativity built in their connotation of what school represents to them. Breaking down this communication barrier and extending an invitation to engage parents and let them know that the relationship is reciprocal and not just a one-way communication, creates a pathway to true engagement. A tip offered is for teachers to add questions to homework assignments that are for parents. The question doesn’t have to be hard, it’s an acknowledgment to the parent that they have something to say, the teacher is sending a signal that the parent is invited into this process of supporting learning, while the teacher is also learning something about the family/child to help with pedagogy.
  3. Opt-out vs Opt-in – Todd Rogers, Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, shared a fascinating discovery from his randomized control trial study where schools use text messaging to share student information with parents. In his study, he effectively pitted three groups against each other, a control group that received communication as usual from the school (not much). The second group was a treatment group that received a text message explaining that families would receive messages reporting on school events and their child’s performance/grades. These families were asked to text back if they didn’t want to participate, and only about 5% opt-out. Lastly, a third group of families received a text message explaining they could receive messages reporting on school events and their child’s performance/grades if they texted back to opt-in. Only about 5% opted in! The research also found that in the treatment group (95% participation), there were large treatment effects on grades and performance, and in the group where 5% of families opted-in there was no effect. Opt-out communication should be the standard for school communication. Many partner schools utilize similar opt-out communication platforms, going forth, we will reinforce the importance of arranging this research-backed communication with communities. When families are delivered actionable information that they don’t have to seek out, they act on it and improve student achievement. 
  4. Creating Connection – Soo Hong writes in A Cord of Three Strands about family engagement from a broader community-based perspective or an ecological perspective and introduces a framework of three “I”s: induction, integration, investment. Integration stuck out as a place for improvement within our initiative.  She describes integration as a process of helping families establish relationships with other parents/families. Thinking about how to develop opportunities for families to get to know each other and building a close-knit community. Her sentiment is echoed in research from Todd Rogers that shows when parents are asked: “do you know other parents of kids in your kid’s class?” in high SES families, 95% or more, can name another adult and in low SES families only about half can. Creating connections between families can be transformational for learning what’s going on in school, finding out about what’s going on in the classroom, or finding backup logistics for drop off and pick up. Moving forward, we intend to work with each school partner to dedicate 10 minutes at each family empowerment night for networking and building relationships across families.
  5. District Level Implementation Really Does Matters – Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships reveals that data shows that having district leaders learn from, and share knowledge among schools leads to higher quality family partnership programs. District leaders learn from the schools, schools learn from the district leader, and schools learn from other schools. A collaborative culture should be supported because, in reality, students and families will be moving to other schools, from elementary to middle to high school, and the ideal situation is that families recognize their school is a partner no matter where their student is. In order for that to happen, district-level collaboration is imperative. Bringing more schools together to collaborate and build off of the family engagement work we’ve established at our partner schools is a priority for our team as we move into 2020. 

This course opened up many actionable pathways to improve our current family partnership and empowerment initiatives. We strive to implement these research-backed practices over the coming weeks and months to increase communication and collaboration between families, their schools and their communities. Stay-tuned for more reflections related to changes in teacher prep and policy to address family partnership.

More to do. More to come.

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