The School Zone: News

Most families and schools understand the term “parent involvement.” A few well-known examples in this area include Back-to-School Night sessions, special school events, fundraisers or helping students with their homework if so directed.

While such activities are familiar and may be helpful and effective ones, family engagement experts are working on identifying the most effective forms of parent, school and community interactions and engagement. 

One example: What occurs when the traditional Parent-Teacher conference changes shape to include the student in the review, discussion and goal setting?

“What we’re starting to see,” says Karen Mapp, Ed.D., a senior lecturer at Harvard University School of Education, “is the more that our strategy partners families and staff in a way so that they’re all familiar with the learning, and developmental goals and outcomes that the school is trying to reach, those are the kinds of strategies where we see increasingly effective results.”

“Some of the things we’ve done for hundreds of years around family-school partnerships have actually turned out to not be the most effective,” Mapp adds. 

This key shift in thinking is reflected today in federal law. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) uses “family engagement” over “parent involvement” phrases when the federal education law talks about the school-family connection.

Mapp spoke Sept. 5 in a district Parent U kick-off session held at Don Coleman Coliseum. She addressed in person there dozens of parents and teachers, while her talk was live streamed to hundreds more. She also spoke the next day to SBISD leaders and administrators in a special workshop meeting.

An expert in the field and author of numerous articles and books, Mapp has spent more than 20 years in the study of family engagement. Before joining Harvard, she was a consultant to the U.S. Department of Education for several years beginning in 2011.

She served as the first deputy superintendent of family engagement for Boston Public Schools, noting in her SBISD appearance that her cabinet-level position there was the first in the country. Today, positions at the cabinet level involving family engagement now include 150 or more top school leaders.

Twenty years of research on family engagement shows that active parents, grandparents and others are absolutely critical partners in student academic achievement. Mapp’s own interest in tutoring led her to leave her early AT&T career and pursue a degree in master’s degree in guidance and counseling.

According to Mapp, decades of research into family engagement proves its worth:

Examples include:

  • Students show higher rates of literacy acquisition.
  • Students earn higher grades and test scores, in general.
  • Student absences decrease by ¼ when teacher/school home visits are introduced, and students are likely to read at or above grade level compared to others when family is included.
  • Students tend to enroll in higher-level academic programs, are more likely to graduate, and also enroll in higher education more than others.
  • Students tend to gain better social skills and display better home/school behavior.

Mapp told the SBISD audience that family involvement and parent-community ties are as important for school improvement gains as generally accepted requirements like high-quality leadership, teacher and staff development, and student-centered learning climate.  

“Are we taking family involvement seriously? Mapp asked rhetorically at Don Coleman Coliseum. Mapp certainly does.


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