New Models for Family Engagement

Nov 21, 2011 by

Anne O’Brien, Learning First Alliance

Last week was American Education Week, which included a celebration of a child’s first teachers – her parents. On Parents Day schools across the country invited parents into the classroom to experience firsthand what a day is like for their child.

Of course, schools shouldn’t wait until Parents Day to engage families in their child’s education. Research has shown that family engagement in, or support of, learning leads to better grades, more positive attitudes towards school, better attendance, higher graduation rates and greater likelihood of enrolling in postsecondary education.

A new report from the National Education Association’s Priority Schools Campaign reviews this research and profiles 16 family and community engagement initiatives from across the country that have shown success in engaging families and/or community organizations in improving student outcomes. From these programs, it identifies 10 major strategies and approaches that appear to be critical to their success, and it offers school, district, state and national level recommendations for how to scale up and strengthen this important work.

One thing I appreciated: the report’s articulation of how to move from traditional family “involvement” activities (which are rooted in “outdated thinking and faulty assumptions”) to strategic family “engagement” programs. As Larry Ferlazzo explains, 

When we’re involving parents, ideas and energy tends to come from the schools and from government mandates. We tend to sell ideas. School staff might feel they know what the problems are and how to fix them (and generally are well-intentioned).

When we’re engaging parents, ideas tend to be elicited from parents by school staff in the context of developing trusting relationships. More parent energy drives the efforts because they emerge from parent/community needs and priorities.

So what does this look like in practice? It is moving from one-time projects, like Family Fun Night, to “continuous improvement,” like a committee at Colorado’s Math and Science Leadership Academy focused on school climate that surveys families yearly to get feedback for improvement.

It is shifting from an deficit-based and adversarial approach (offering parenting classes on areas the school identifies as deficits, for example) to a strength-based and collaborative approach, as at Putnam City West High School in Oklahoma, which holds community conversations to hear families’ ideas for improving student learning and then incorporates them into school work.

And it is sharing responsibility with families, such as Phoenix’s Creighton Elementary School District does. There, some individual parent-teacher conferences have been replaced with “classroom team meetings,” in which teachers model learning strategies that parents can use at home to improve specific skills, and parents get to interact with other parents, sharing successful practices and forming a community. 

Each of the 16 profiles shares one school, district or community’s efforts to work together to improve student learning. And most of them involved communities that are often considered hard to engage – low-income or non-English-speaking, for example. Yet all have succeeded. They have shown us that it is possible. The next step? Using what we have learned from them to help more schools, districts and communities successfully engage families and citizens in education.   

About the Author


Anne O’Brien is the deputy director of the Learning First Alliance (LFA). LFA is a partnership of 17 major national education associations that collectively represent some 10 million parents, educators, and policymakers. LFA members work together to find common ground and create shared strategies for giving every child a chance for success in work, in life, and as citizens. Among her duties with the organization, Anne maintains the LFA blog, Public School Insights, which promotes what is working in our public schools and discussion of how to make them work for all children. She also blogs for Edutopia on school reform issues.


Anne brings a practitioner’s lens to her work, having taught high school biology, physical science, and remedial math in southeastern Louisiana while serving as a Teach For America corps member. She also helped rebuild one of the area’s mentoring agencies after Hurricane Katrina. Anne holds a Master’s degree from George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development and is an alumna of the Education Policy Fellowship Program.


About The Learning First Alliance

The Learning First Alliance is a partnership of 16 leading education associations with more than 10 million members dedicated to improving student learning in America’s public schools. Alliance members include: the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, American Association of School Administrators, American Association of School Personnel Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, American School Counselor Association, International Society for Technology in Education, Learning Forward (formerly National Staff Development Council), National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, National Education Association, National Middle School Association, National School Public Relations Association, National PTA, National School Boards Association and Phi Delta Kappa International. The Alliance maintains, a website that features what’s working in public schools and districts across the country.


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