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THE ISSUE OF EQUITY: Taking Research on Partnership Program Development to Scale in Practice

A summary report of small group discussions at ERNAPE-Lisboa Joyce L. Epstein, Ph.D. Johns Hopkins University

In a plenary presentation at the ERNAPE-Lisboa conference, I discussed the urgency of applying research-based approaches to partnership program development in all schools for the purpose of greater equity. Based on hundreds of studies conducted over thirty years by researchers in many countries, it is clear that results confirm the importance of family engagement for student success in school. If that is true, then we must ask: What will it take to “scale up” research-based approaches to engage all families in ways that contribute to all students’ success in school? Scaling up partnerships in all schools is an “aspirational goal”—at least in the short term. However, our interest in equity asserts that “All students deserve equal opportunity to meet their full potential in school.” Presently, only some schools engage some families to support children’s learning and development. Yet, for students to have equal access to school programs, services, and opportunities to learn, parents need to be informed and active advocates in their children’s education (See related resource, Epstein, 2013). Other studies indicate that scaling up research-based, goal-linked partnership programs will require school, district/state/ministry leaders to have up-to-date knowledge on new directions for developing and implementing equitable and effective policies, plans, actions, evaluations, and on-going leadership efforts. Questions were posed for attendees at ERNAPE-Lisboa to discuss:    What will it take to scale up good partnership programs in all schools in your country? What are the challenges to this imperative agenda? What are the opportunities to take action to establish more and better partnership programs at all school levels?

After the presentation, attendees were divided in five small groups with assigned discussion leaders to identify important challenges and opportunities for advancing this work more swiftly and more surely in their own countries. Many ideas were discussed by the five groups during a 40-minute session.1 This paper summarizes some of the main ideas generated in the small groups and shared with the full conference.2
Resource: Epstein, J. L. (2013). The Issue of Equity: Taking Research on Partnership Program Development to Scale in Practice. PowerPoint Presentation, ERNAPE-Lisboa. Lisbon: www.ernapelisboa.org _______________________
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The small groups discussed some or all of the questions that were provided. Each group proceeded at a different pace. Most groups spent more time on the first question, resulting in more ideas for the overarching topics of challenges and opportunities. Some notes identified speakers and their countries; others listed only ideas. Thanks to Jessica Elmore, NNPS Network Coordinator, for assisting in assembling the comments of the five small group discussions for this summary.

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SUMMARY OF IDEAS FROM SMALL GROUP DISCUSSIONS 1. Common Challenges

Q. What are major challenges that limit educators from scaling up partnership programs at
all school levels in your country? What are potential solutions to one or more of the stated challenges?

A.

Attendees identified long-standing factors that challenge and delay the application of research-based programs of family and community involvement in all schools. These include:        Lack of funds Lack of time Lack of preservice, advanced, and inservice education for teachers and administrators Abundance of old attitudes Narrow definition of “professional” work Resistance to change Need for leadership

They also discussed related explanations and solutions to these challenges. Lack of funds. Attendees noted that many school leaders say that they have limited or no funds for organizing effective partnership programs. Solving the challenge. Most schools, districts, and/or ministries of education have sufficient funds for important components of school improvement. Presently some family involvement activities conducted in just about every school are paid for from unspecified funds, rather than from organized, dedicated line-items in a school (or district/state/ministry) budget. Documented costs for school-based programs of family and community involvement are low. Costs for start-up school-based programs average about $20 per pupil per year, a tiny fraction of the overall per pupil expenditures for education in most locations. (See p. 245 in Epstein, et al., 2009). The small investment is a “thrifty” way to support an on-going, planned, goal-linked partnership program at each school, guided by an Action Team for Partnerships that works to inform and engage all families in their children’s education. Lack of time. Attendees recognized that teachers and principals are very busy with other school improvement efforts. Attendees noted that when teachers and administrators feel too much pressure, have many requirements, and/or have poor time management, they may “burn out” and leave the field. Explaining the challenge. It is true that educators are extremely busy and must not be asked to waste time. Studies show, however, that family and community engagement activities are not “extra” or “different” work for teachers. Rather, good programs of school, family, and
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community partnerships enable educators to help their students reach all of the important goals that have been set to increase skills in reading, math, and other subjects and to improve school behaviors. A recent national study of teachers in the U. S. indicated that those in “collaborative schools” with high-quality parental involvement were more satisfied with their work and were less likely to leave teaching (Markow & Pieters, 2012). Lack of preservice education for future teachers, advanced education for future administrators, and inservice education/professional development/on-going technical assistance for practicing educators. Explaining the challenge. Attendees at ERNAPE-Lisboa recognized that, even today— despite years of research on family and community engagement—most future teachers receive little or no preparation in college courses to understand the central role of school, family, and community partnerships in their professional work and for the success of students. Most future administrators are not prepared to go beyond “dealing with parents” to lead their schools in developing effective, equitable, positive, and sustainable partnership programs. The results of research in sociology, psychology, education, and other fields has not been translated or transformed for use in courses on methods of teaching for future teachers or to methods of school organization and management for future principals and administrators. Similarly, the conference attendees acknowledged that most practicing educators receive little or no professional development or on-going guidance from district, state, federal, or ministerial leaders for establishing, strengthening, and sustaining programs of family and community involvement focused on student success in school. These challenge must be solved or the vast majority of new and experienced principals and teachers, superintendents and other administrators will remain unaware of research-based approaches for engaging all families in their children’s education at home and at school. Presently, just about every school in every country conducts some activities with students’ families. Often these are traditional activities (e.g., open house night; report cards sent home) or targeted activities (e.g., communicating with parents when their child has academic or behavioral problems in school). It will be necessary for colleges, universities, and school leaders to provide preservice, advanced, and inservice education that will update and advance educators’ capacities to conduct more organized, comprehensive, team-led, and goal-linked practices of partnerships with all families to support student success in school (Epstein, 2011; Quezada, Alexandrowicz, & Molina, 2013). Abundance of old attitudes. Although surveys of teachers across countries indicate that just about all practicing educators know and say that family engagement is important, they also say (a) they do not know how to create the collaborative conditions to ensure feasible and productive partnerships with all families, and (b) that most parents cannot be good partners in their children’s education. Explaining the challenge. The gap between teachers’ beliefs of the importance of involvement and actions to improve school, family, and community partnerships must be closed. As noted above, most teachers, principals, and guidance counselors presently contact parents when students are at risk of failing or behaving badly in school. These communications indicate that teachers want parents to be partners to help students’ solve serious problems. Such contacts are important, but they do not create a welcoming school climate and planned, periodic, positive
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connections with all families to support student learning. Studies indicate that parents become defensive when teachers contact them only if their child is in trouble. The identified challenges are connected to each other. All of them must be solved. For example, better preparation in college courses on partnerships and on-going professional development and technical assistance for practicing educators will help more teachers close the gap between their beliefs and actions to implement more and better connections with all families. Narrow definitions of “professional” work. In addition to “old attitudes” about parents’ inabilities to support student learning, some educators have a narrow definition of what it means to be “professional.” They believe that, because of their degree programs and professional training, only teachers can teach children school subjects and skills. Teachers are, in fact, responsible for guiding students through increasingly complex curricula across the grades. However, studies confirm that, with new approaches to partnership programs, families with diverse racial, cultural, linguistic, and socio-economic backgrounds can be important influences on their children’s commitment to the role of “student,” working hard in school, and staying in school through high school graduation. With up-to-date preservice and inservice education, more teachers will know new ways to tap all parents’ skills and abilities to help students see that schoolwork is connected to interesting and important real-world applications. Better preparation and on-going education and support will help teachers see that they are more professional if they are able to mobilize all parents to encourage, motivate, monitor, and interact with their children about school subjects and learning. Summary of Challenges. The common, long-standing challenges discussed by ERNAPE-Lisboa attendees are real impediments to progress on partnerships in many schools and jurisdictions. All challenges, however, can be solved. Underlying all of the challenges is the need for leadership at the school or other (district, state, federal or ministry) levels. Leaders must understand that programs of school, family, and community partnerships are part of the organization of every school and part of the professional work of teachers and administrators. Leaders also must guide all teachers to implement new approaches to goal-linked plans and practices that engage all families in ways that support student success in school. Such actions build a “culture of partnerships” in schools with all students’ families. The common challenges that delay progress on partnerships sound “old” and “empty” as the research base grows and as examples accumulate of successful programs of family and community engagement in preschools, elementary, middle, and high schools. (See www.partnershipschools.org and the sections on Research and Evaluation for the research base on partnership program development and Success Stories for excellent examples from the field). The next section summarizes ideas from the small groups that focused on emerging opportunities in their countries that may encourage scaling up research-based partnership programs.

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2. Emerging Opportunities Q. What are the opportunities in your locale for applying the results of research to
improve schools’ programs and practices of partnerships?

A. Attendees discussed the following ideas.
    Learn from good practice. Encourage networking to increase knowledge and readiness to improve practice. Build on programs that already identify the need for equity in opportunities for children from immigrant families and families with low income. Increase professional development for teachers to implement equitable and effective partnerships with all students’ families and with community partners. Adapt approaches implemented by after-school programs to increase family and community engagement during the school day. Build on teachers’ consistent statements that parents are important in their children’s lives to develop goal-linked activities that engage all parents in their children’s education. Build on data and practices that show that (a) parents want to be involved in their children’s education, (b) some already are engaged, and (c) others need more and better information and guidance to become engaged in productive ways. Build on priorities—such as student health—that are important to educators and to parents. Shared goals can spark more and better ways to implement goal-linked partnership activities. Add the evaluation of the quality of partnership programs to standard evaluations of the quality of all other aspects of schools’ programs.

 

Learn from good practice. Some schools, particularly in northern and rural areas in Portugal, are conducting effective practices to engage parents with their children’s learning. Other schools, that have made less progress or are wary of the power of collaboration, could learn from the best, tested practices that are working well in other schools. There should be ways for school leaders (or other leaders) to organize and conduct systematic ways for schools to share best practices. Network with others. Some school heads (e.g., headmasters or principals) may work as consultants or coaches to help other school leaders understand the importance of partnerships and to customize practices to match the school’s grade levels, populations served, and goals for student success. Build on existing programs that work for greater equity in education. In Denmark, there is increasing attention on the need to integrate immigrant students and their families and to respond to their needs so that more of them succeed in school. Some schools have
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acknowledged that, presently, inequalities exist in the education of Danish and immigrant students. This awareness provides an opportunity to set goals for greater equity among the diverse groups of students in Danish schools, and to design more pertinent outreach to meet immigrant families, learn about their goals for their children, and develop more effective partnerships with them and with all families in supporting children’s education and progress through the grades. There is an emerging opportunity for more schools to develop a “sense of community” as they strive to engage every family in their children’s education. In Rotterdam, Netherlands, there is a network of schools that serves students in economically stressed communities. The schools for families with low incomes are dedicated to school improvement. Based on the mission of the school and the teachers’ commitment to their work, this network of schools has an opportunity to take new approaches to school, family, and community partnerships. These schools could “show the way” to scaling up research-based partnership programs that engage all families with their children on doing their best in school.
See how a network of schools can share best practices in the books of Promising Partnership Practices and reports on Partnership Awards from the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS) at Johns Hopkins University. At www.partnershipschools.org in the section Success Stories. Similar activities are organized by some district or organization leaders who create their own books of best practices to share good work among their own schools.

Provide inservice education. Too often, we talk about partnerships, but do little or nothing to bring the concept into practice. In the Netherlands, in-service education is increasing to help more teachers think about and take action on good partnerships with students’ parents and other partners. Inservice education combined with on-going technical assistance opens opportunities for school and organization leaders to move from familiar rhetoric about the importance of family engagement to more and better actions that promote good practice. Adapt after-school engagement activities to the school day. Some after-school programs have developed strategies to communicate and collaborate with parents and other community volunteers to support or supplement after-school activities for students. Drawing on their talents and hobbies, community and family members have been asked by after-school program leaders to share their knowledge, skills, and passions with students to increase students’ love of sports, music, art, dance, and other areas of enrichment. Some after-school programs are supported with funding or in-kind donations from the business partners, faith-based organizations, and other community partners. These supporters also may support elementary, middle, and high schools to engage all families in effective partnership activities linked to school goals for student learning (e.g., in reading, math, and other subjects). Close the gap between statements about engagement and actions to engage all parents in children’s education. There is a gap between wide-spread belief that parents are important in children’s lives and the lack of teachers’ outreach to parents to engage them in learning activities for students’ success in school. Schools could take the opportunity to build on strong support for the idea of parental engagement to broaden programs and practices that actually engage parents in children’s learning across grade levels. It is a small—but important—step to help all teachers close this gap and move to design specific activities that will mobilize all parents to encourage students to do their best work in school and stay in school through high school graduation. Build on parents’ love and interest in helping their own children. In China, parents have high expectations for their children’s success and most parents want to be involved in their education. Schools have an opportunity to meet parent’s requests for involvement, and,
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presently some schools do with at least some parents. The history of parental interest in children’s learning offers an important opportunity for expanding outreach and guidance to all students’ parents at every grade level. Expand new initiatives for goal-linked partnerships. In Denmark, researchers have been developing a questionnaire for students’ self-reports about parental engagement in their education. There also is a national priority to improve student health. These advances open opportunities to identify where schools’ are starting from in their outreach to engage all families. Because schools differ in present practices, it helps to know their starting points. Also, parents care a great deal about children’s health and wellness. These current initiatives could spark more organized and equitable activities to engage all families at school and at home in ways that improve students’ healthy development and learning. Evaluate the quality and progress of partnerships. In Chile, an education agency is devoted to evaluating the quality and progress of school programs. This is important because the results of the evaluations affect funding for the schools. This organization is aware of the importance of school, family, and community partnerships. There is, then, an opportunity to add an evaluation of partnership programs to schools’ assessments. Evaluating partnership programs as part of regular assessments of school quality, opens opportunities to provide professional development for educators on new strategies for organizing, implementing, evaluating, and continually improving their programs and practices. It is not helpful to only evaluate something. It is also necessary to provide the knowledge, skills, tools, and support for schools to improve the quality of their programs from one evaluation to the next.

Q. What are the opportunities for a “round trip” in which practice promotes new
research on partnerships?

A. Attendees discussed the following ideas.
  Current school conditions suggest new research studies. The prominence of students in all schools opens opportunities for more studies of students’ views, roles, and reactions to parental involvement, and goals for their own success in school. Natural experiments based on changing policies—such as school closings and parental choice of schools—could promote related research.

Use school structures for innovative studies. Some schools in the U. S. are organized for open observations, with one-way viewing windows for parents to come to observe their children’s behavior and teachers’ techniques. This architectural design might be used for observational research of teachers’ practices at parent-teacher conferences, parents’ interactions with children on a family reading night or at other family engagement activities.. Focus on students needed data on partnerships. Despite hundreds of studies of the nature of family engagement across countries, there are relatively few studies of children’s roles, beliefs, and preferences for partnership activities with family and community partners. New
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studies are needed on how children at different grade levels think about family engagement, which interactions are enjoyable and beneficial from the students’ perspective? Take advantage of natural experiments. Schools sometimes provide natural experimental conditions for study. For example, in Missouri and elsewhere, there are occasions when districts and schools close as they are consolidated to account for changing populations and changing facilities. When schools close (or in systems that require family choice of schools at any level), there are opportunities to study school factors that affect families’ choices of schools, including the quality of programs of school, family, and community partnerships.

Q. Whose job is it to “scale up” the application of research-based approaches to
partnership program development in practice so that all schools engage all families in children’s education at school and/or at home?

A. Attendees discussed the following ideas.
 Preservice education must include courses and activities that prepare future teachers and administrators to understand the newest approaches to developing effective programs of school, family, and community partnerships. Inservice education is needed to plan and customize partnership programs at schools that serve diverse populations of families, students at different grade levels, and to engage partners in specific goals for student learning and development. Teamwork is needed to plan, conduct, and evaluate programs of family and community engagement. Leadership is not up to one person, nor up to an amorphous “everyone.” A well-functioning team will have leaders and co-leaders for general planning and for specifically scheduled activities to engage all families in productive ways. National and local policies are needed to require all schools to organize and implement effective and equitable programs of school, family, and community partnerships.

Provide preservice, advanced, and inservice education . Some noted that degree programs for future teachers must do more and better to prepare educators to use new structures and processes for school-wide, grade-level, and classroom-specific engagement of families. Similarly, advanced programs at the master’s and doctoral level should guide future principals and other administrators on partnership program development. At the University of Georgia in the U. S., professors are encouraged to develop partnerships with local schools and provide courses for students in all degree programs on the school and family connections. In-service education and on-going technical assistance are needed by practicing educators. As one attendee commented, it starts with teachers’ skills and abilities to engage parents in productive ways. Also, each principal must manage a “partnership school” that welcomes all families as partners in their children‘s education. This takes professional
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development and on-going technical assistance so that new ideas and information are learned, shared, and developed over time. Work with community partners. Some noted that businesses, community agencies, and other community partners can be important in pressing for more collaborative school programs of school, family, and community partnerships. Establish a team leadership structure. We must not conclude that because everyone has responsibility for children’s education that no one is in charge. Studies confirm that teamwork is key to planning, implementing, and evaluating programs of family and community involvement. The chairperson or co-chairs of a team work with educators, parents, community partners, and others to reach out to engage all students’ families and many community partners in students’ education, strengthening the curriculum, providing services to families, and offering learning opportunities to students at all grade levels. Enact policies. Attendees discussed the importance of national and local policies that require all schools to organize and implement effective and equitable programs of school, family, and community partnerships. Policies are, however, just an initial step to spotlight the importance of family and community engagement, as policy statements must be accompanied by the structures, processes, and leadership actions to implement the policies.

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Selected References Epstein, J. L. (2011). School, family, and community partnerships: Preparing educators and improving schools, second edition. Boulder CO: Westview. Epstein, J. L., et al. (2009). School, family, and community partnerships: Your handbook for action. Third edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. See the related website, http://www.partnershipschools.org for how research-based approaches are applied in practice in diverse communities. Markow, D., & Pieters, A. (2012). The 2011 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Teachers, Parents and the Economy. New York: MetLife. Quezada, R., Alexandrowicz, V., & Molina, S. C. (eds.) (2013). Teaching Education, 24 (2)/June. (Special issue on family, school, community engagement… and colleges of education…). Also see hundreds of studies conducted by many researchers over several decades in the extensive bibliographies of these references.

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