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FINE Newsletter, Volume III, Issue 4
Issue Topic: Expanded Learning and Family Engagement

Emerging Leaders

Eric Dearing, PhD, is Associate Professor of Applied Developmental Psychology in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, where his research focuses on the ways that connections between families, schools, and community agencies improve the life chances of children growing up poor. In this Emerging Leaders profile, Dr. Dearing discusses the need to use data-based evidence, rather than intuition, to create successful family and community engagement strategies.

My vision for the family engagement field

The value of family and community engagement in education appears to have an intuitive appeal to people across the political spectrum. There are, however, pros and cons to this. On the pros side, federal and state policymakers often give attention to the matter, if only in their rhetoric. Moreover, most educators and education scholars need little convincing that family and community involvement could help boost student achievement in disadvantaged schools. But on the cons side, because they rely primarily on intuition, few policymakers, practitioners, or education scholars articulate precisely how or why family and community engagement matters. Indeed, I sometimes find that answers to these questions do not go beyond the idea that it is good for families to be involved, simply because family involvement is good.

At first glance, this may not seem to be much of a con. In fact, you might ask, “As long as most folks agree that family and community engagement is good, what is the harm of their reliance on intuition?” As I see it, acceptance of this premise based mainly on its intuitive appeal preemptively undermines our motivation to be careful discriminators in the search for standardized practices that are proven to promote engagement and, in turn, child achievement. As a result, schools are all too often approaching engagement in a haphazard and extemporaneous manner.

My vision for the field (and the nation) is that we abandon the reliance on intuition and instead thoughtfully consider what is and is not working, and why. In turn, we can begin to empower districts—particularly those that are economically disadvantaged—to invest in promising and proven practices that engage families and communities in their children’s education in ways that will ultimately improve life chances.

With this vision in mind, I think it is worth highlighting two intervention programs that are presently yielding results of practical significance. The first is the Getting Ready intervention developed by Susan Sheridan and her colleagues at the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families, and Schools. Two strategies are central to the intervention: (1) goal-oriented engagement of parents with their children, and (2) a family–school decision-making model that brings parents and teachers together to collaboratively identify and analyze children’s strengths and weaknesses, and brainstorm plans of action for promoting achievement and well-being. In randomized controlled trials—the gold standard in evaluation research—Getting Ready has resulted in sizable improvements in social-emotional well-being and literacy outcomes among preschoolers growing up poor.

The second intervention is City Connects, developed by Mary Walsh at Boston College’s Center for Optimized Student Support. At the core of this intervention is the placement of student support professionals in elementary schools who (a) evaluate every child’s unique strengths and needs, in collaboration with teachers and other school professionals; and (b) create a tailored student support plan that is aligned with these individual strengths and needs, and is accomplished through school–community agency partnerships that are initiated, evaluated, and nurtured by the support professional. In a quasi-experimental study in which elementary students were matched not only on background characteristics but also on baseline achievement and social competence, City Connects has demonstrated lasting achievement gains in literacy and mathematics for children in high-poverty urban schools.

Although my descriptions of these programs are abbreviated here, at least two common themes are worth noting. First, rather than happening in a haphazard fashion, family and community engagement is approached through a standardized set of practices that purposively foster collaborations centered on an individual child’s strengths and needs. Second, rather than an extemporaneous process, establishing connections between family, school, and community is a fundamental and core aspect of the school’s mission and functioning as an institution. In my vision, approaches such as these two become the rule rather than the exception.

Current efforts to advance this vision

There is a growing need to discover practices most useful for schools working to connect with an increasingly diverse population of families and communities. In my own research, I am presently focusing more closely on family and community engagement for immigrant children, particularly those who are English language learners. Doing this research in a manner that advances my vision for the field involves a different form of engagement: researcher–school–community engagement. With support and inspiration from the Foundation for Child Development, I relied on input from and communication with community agencies serving immigrant families, as well as policy decision makers and education stakeholders, as critical components of my current efforts to advance my research and my vision for the field. Fortunately, I am not alone: I am following closely in the footsteps of other leaders in this area.

Changes still needed to help enable this vision

Economic uncertainty and financial cutbacks are major obstacles to investing in engagement. For example, how can we afford to create school staff positions with primary responsibilities of family and community engagement when classroom teaching positions are being cut in many districts? Yet the real question may be: How can we afford not to? “Back of the envelope” estimates are placing the annual cost of City Connects at close to $500 per student. District and community investments in this program appear wise in light of the savings associated with reduced retention rates—there were about 50% fewer ninth grade retentions for students in intervention versus comparison schools—and the potential long-term benefits of increased achievement for earnings and life chances. Nonetheless, it will require reliance on proven, data-driven engagement strategies, rather than intuition, to recognize the true value of family and community engagement for students and communities.

For more information, please see the following resources:

© 2014 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project