Moving Learning Forward Through Family Engagement

August 6, 2020

As part of our summer webinar series, Setting the Stage for Learning This Fall, we pulled together national experts on attendance, learning, and family-school partnerships to help provide district leaders with diverse perspectives on the transition back to school. Hedy Chang, Phyllis Jordan, Angela Duckworth, and Karen L. Mapp joined our Cofounder and Chief Scientist Todd Rogers to discuss strategies for recreating learning this fall.

The final episode in the series featured Karen L. Mapp, Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It focused on the evolution of family-school partnerships as a result of COVID-19 and national calls to rethink education in response to a long history of systemic racial inequality. As schools around the country closed this spring, schools turned to Mapp for her expertise on how to effectively partner with families. She quickly discovered two things: the first, schools that practiced what she termed family avoidance struggled with contacting families, let alone ensuring learning continuity; the second, schools that did family engagement well before the closures pivoted smoothly.

So, what is family avoidance? On the surface, a policy that reinforces family avoidance can look like family engagement. One example is the family conference. Teachers schedule family after family to talk about their child early in the school year. Often this is the family’s first experience with the teacher, and they get as little as 15 minutes to talk about their student’s academic progress. Families walk away with unanswered questions and unresolved feelings about the discussion, especially if the child needs extra support. As one of the world’s foremost experts in family engagement, this is an all too familiar example of a policy that some schools call family engagement but is an example of family avoidance.

Another example is the family check-in or home visit. Whether done by phone, in-person, or virtually, the approach can determine whether the practice promotes family engagement or family avoidance. This spring contact with families was well-meant and vital to ensuring the health and well-being of students. But as practitioners picked up phones and set up Zoom meetings with families, a distinction quickly became evident. Mapp found that from the start, some check-ins focused on relaying information about the schedule, the number of days the student was online, and the number of assignments completed—an example of family avoidance. While these things are essential, they can’t be the foundation of family-school partnerships.

Real family engagement focuses on building meaningful relationships with families and understanding that their special knowledge of their child is an asset. These ideas should be the foundation of successful family check-ins, according to Mapp. The practitioners who were successful this spring started by learning what the family needed, what their goals for their child’s remote learning were, and what they observed about their child’s transition to remote learning. As Mapp puts it:

You’ve got to start with the human part. You can’t just start with the curriculum. You can’t start with the content. You have to start with the character, and with the connections—that’s where you begin.

Mapp, like so many Americans over the past few months, examined how implicit bias fuels racial injustice. When applying that lens to her work as a family engagement expert, she realized that bias and false narratives about families play a large role in policies that reinforce family avoidance:

I think part of what’s happened with family engagement over the years—over the decades—is that we haven’t really faced facts when it comes to our implicit biases about one another. Whether they’re based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, or gender, you know we have these stereotypes about people that, left unchecked and unexamined, have a tendency to invade our practice.

As the author of the U.S. Department of Education’s Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Effective Family-School Partnerships, Mapp asserts that beyond being culturally relevant, family engagement must be anti-racist. The framework asks educators to view families as equals in the learning process, making an anti-racist approach a precondition for effective family engagement.

Effective family engagement requires relationship building, ongoing communication, and time, and these requirements cannot fall solely on teachers. District and school leaders need to build systems and structures to support teachers in the endeavor of family engagement. Districts need to build time into teachers’ schedules and establish supports to ensure teachers have the resources they need to truly partner with families. The economic fallout of COVID-19 increased the likelihood of teachers having difficult conversations when they reach out to families. Beyond building time into the day for teachers to focus on family engagement, districts should compile a list of resources to support conversations around food, housing, and income insecurity. Communicating with families in their home language is a critical component in effective family engagement. Districts should consider how they can provide translation services for their teachers. As a former assistant superintendent for Boston Public Schools, Mapp turned to community-based organizations such as churches to provide services.

Education cannot move forward this fall without families. Whether learning is happening in the classroom or remotely, families need to understand what students are learning and be viewed as an asset to that process. To move learning forward, Mapp says:

We’re asking people to treat families not like objects but as people who have knowledge that they need. So as an educator, I need the family’s cultural knowledge, I need the family’s knowledge of the child—they’re their child’s first teacher. So instead of looking at them again as somebody to avoid, I need to look at them as somebody to embrace because that embracing is actually critical to my success as an educator. We need families to be co-creators in this thing that we’re calling school. We can’t do it without them anymore.

Education has been reshaped. Educators are grappling with unprecedented challenges, but also with the unprecedented opportunity to get family engagement right—to truly partner with families to change student outcomes.

For more strategies on how to effectively partner with families, watch our webinar Making Family-School Partnerships More Effective This Fall and check out our Family Insights ToolKit.