Feature: A Conversation with Dr. Karen Mapp, Consultant on Family Engagement

Like other areas of education innovation, there are no silver bullets when it comes to pressing questions of how best to engage parents and families, particularly in high-need schools, in order to raise student achievement. But there are informative studies as well as researchers and practitioners on the front lines of family engagement who possess insights that can point the way. With the prospect of doubling the amount of Title I funds set aside for parental and family engagement, promising policies and practices that can be pursued and brought to scale in this area of education reform are more important than ever before.

Dr. Karen Mapp, lecturer on education and director of the Education Policy and Management Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has joined the Office of Parental Options and Information (POI) as a consultant to explore a number of pressing issues of both policy and practice – ones that will inform and improve not only POI’s work, but also the broader policy framework of parental and family engagement as it applies to Title I and other nationwide federal school improvement efforts.

As she began her consultancy, Karen Mapp (KM) sat down with POI Director Anna Hinton (AH) for a conversation about a number of the issues they expect to tackle.

AH: As you know, research gathered over the past 40 years suggests family engagement is one of the strongest predictors of children’s success in school. And over the past few years—with this solid research base in hand—we’ve seen a sense of urgency from many stakeholders and experts in the field—including you—to move family engagement from an event-driven approach to a strategy that’s embraced as a critical component of whole-school reform. How would you characterize the current state of family engagement?

karen mapp

Karen Mapp of Harvard University's Graduate School of Education and consultant to OII's Parental Options and Information

KM: Because of the hard work of many people in the field and in the Department, there is increased awareness about the important role that family engagement plays in school improvement and school reform. The definition of family engagement has evolved from a limited focus on a parent’s role as a supporter of their child’s learning at home, which is important, to a broader definition that recognizes the multiple ways that parents are engaged – at home, at school, and in the community – and not only in their own child’s education, but in the efforts to improve the quality of education for all children. We now know from the research that engaging families and community partners is an essential ingredient to the improvement of schools. This is a major finding from a longitudinal study of school improvement [PDF, 442KB] conducted by the Consortium for Chicago School Research. Current conversations are now focused on a more systemic framework around family engagement.

AH: What is a systemic framework for family engagement?

KM: Family Engagement is systemic when it is an integrated and sustained part of a strategy to improve student learning and school and district performance. In other words, family engagement policy and practice must be aligned and coherent with the overall vision and theory of change identified at the federal, state, or local levels to improve student learning and to reform and revitalize our schools. It must be a part of the formula for school improvement, and the strategy should be directly connected to the identified goals.

One of the biggest “ah-hah” moments that often occurs when I am working with district and school leaders is when I ask them to report out on two or three of their district or school academic targets or goals. A common answer usually has to do with reading or English proficiency, for example “all students will be reading by the end of first grade.” I then ask “how does your district or school family engagement strategy align itself with this target or goal? When you design and plan your school open houses, parent-teacher conferences, and parent workshops, how do these connect back to your student and school improvement goals?” The light bulbs go off, and participants realize that family engagement should always be linked to learning. When this happens, families are more likely to engage because the link is made clear between their engagement and results for kids and schools, and school staff are more likely to want to cultivate partnerships with families because they see that family engagement isn’t just “one added thing” that they are asked to do, but an essential component of the improvement process.

Family engagement is often seen as a separate activity, something that is done out of compliance. When it is an integrated part of the overall strategic plan to improve student performance and schools, that’s when it is systemic. I’m beginning to see in many districts a shift away from isolated, disconnected family engagement programs and activities, referred to by one of our family engagement colleagues, Kate Gill Kressley, as “random acts of family engagement” [MS Word, 129KB] to thoughtful, purposeful initiatives that focus on student achievement and whole school improvement.

AH: What about an example of how that’s working?

KM: A strong example of a systemic approach to family engagement is happening in the Boston Public Schools (BPS) via their Parent University Initiative. The initiative was inspired by the Parent Academy Program, which was started in Miami in 2005, under the leadership of Rudy Crew. The reason why the Boston Parent University program is unique and promising is because they’ve taken very seriously this concept of alignment and coherence and the link of family engagement strategies to learning and achievement. Their Parent University is connected to the district’s whole-school improvement goals. All of the courses that they are providing for families are deeply connected to common-core standards that Boston has adopted. In every class, even a cooking class, parents are learning skills that can help their children with learning, such as reading comprehension. The BPS Family and Student Engagement staff work in partnership with the staff in the district Office of Curriculum and Instruction; in fact, some of the curriculum and instruction staff have designed and taught classes at Parent University. Every single one of those classes is designed to link right back to a learning goal that’s embedded in the common-core standards. This is different from the way that we’ve seen districts and systems design their family engagement programs in the past – very different.

AH: You’ve talked about what you’ve seen at the district level as it relates to this shift. What actions do you think need to occur at the national and federal level, especially in the near term, to support this transition to a more systemic family engagement framework?

KM: I’d like to see the same approach taken at the federal level: the development of family engagement strategies that are integrated, aligned, and coherent with the education priorities outlined by the Department and the President. A federal family engagement strategy has to support the transition from viewing family engagement as a series of “random acts” and compliance types of programs to this more systemic approach. If we’re going to move to a place where family and community engagement is seen as connected to student learning, then we are going to have to build stakeholder capacity, that of parents, community members, and school staff, to be able to support that type of work. I’m hoping to help the Department develop ways to identify, share, and support the research and evaluation of innovative systemic approaches in family engagement.

I’d also like to assist in the connecting of different areas within the Department to stimulate the integration of efforts, and then also between the Department and other federal agencies such as Health and Human Services. I think it’s key to come together to discuss what we know about best practice and how we can coordinate and not duplicate our efforts.

I do think that it will be very important to develop a new and innovative technical assistance infrastructure to build the capacity of the field to implement these new, promising initiatives around family engagement. We must evolve from the practice of encouraging only information distribution, because we know from psychological and motivation research on adult learning that just handing out information to adults doesn’t work in terms of learning and growth. People learn best in situations where they can practice the skill, where they can talk about the skill with others, and where they can build a network of people in which they share and exchange information.

AH: While we continue to focus on student performance and achievement data in turning around our lowest-performing schools, what about family engagement data? How can we better utilize family engagement data in our reform efforts?

KM: The data conversation is occurring in the area of family engagement in at least three important ways. First, school systems are using data as a relationship-building tool between home and school. We know from the research that the first step in cultivating and sustaining effective educational partnerships among families, school staff, and community members is through the building of relationships of trust and respect among the stakeholders. One of my colleagues, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, wrote a wonderful book entitled “The Essential Conversation,” about the complex dynamic between home and school. We see this complex dynamic played out time and again during the annual ritual – the parent-teacher conference. In many cases, the meeting is short, filled with tension, and an air of distrust and suspicion is often prevalent.

In places like Creighton, Arizona, however, learning about student and school data has become a fun and interactive activity between parents and teachers. Teachers conduct group meetings with families, where they’re showing families how to read data on student performance, how to decipher the different assessments, and to evaluate various samples of student work. As a team, parents and teachers discuss how they can together support the children to reach goals and benchmarks. This is an example of a systemic initiative that is not only building trusting and respectful parent-to-parent and parent-to-teacher relationships, but it is also enhancing the capacity of families and school staff to work in partnership to support student learning – all through the use of data as a conversation starter and relationship builder.

Second, schools are using data systems as a way to assess their performance though the eyes of the parents and community. And third, data is being used to evaluate our family engagement interventions and initiatives. This is where the federal government could be of great assistance, in helping to create and support a research and evaluation agenda to study systemic family engagement initiatives and to develop appropriate metrics for research and evaluation.

AH: Karen, on behalf of POI and the Office of Innovation and Improvement, I can assure you that we’re excited about your consultancy and look forward to working with you on these and a number of other issues and challenges in parental and family engagement we didn’t have time to address in this conversation. I’d like to leave open the possibility of us checking in like this in a few months to see what progress we’ve made and to explore some of those additional areas. Would that be okay with you?

KM: Absolutely, let’s plan to do that.

Karen L. Mapp is a lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and the faculty director for the Education, Policy, and Management Master’s Program. Mapp is the co-coordinator with Professor Mark Warren of the Community Organizing and School Reform Research Project at HGSE. Her research and practice expertise is in the areas of educational leadership and partnerships among educators, families, and community members that support student achievement. She joined HGSE in January of 2005 after serving for 18 months as the interim deputy superintendent for Family and Community Engagement for the Boston Public Schools (BPS). Mapp holds a doctorate and master’s of education from HGSE in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy, a master’s in Counselor Education from Southern Connecticut State University, and a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. She is the author of “Having Their Say: Parents Describe How and Why They Are Engaged in Their Children’s Learning” in The School Community Journal (2002). She co-authored with Anne Henderson “A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family and Community Connections on Student Achievement” (2002), and “Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family –School Partnerships” with Anne Henderson, Vivian Johnson, and Don Davies, published by The New Press in 2007. Her most recent book, co-authored with Mark Warren, is “A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform” (2011), published by Oxford University Press.

Editor’s Note: More resources for parental and family engagement are available from the Office of Parental Options and Information.