Transformative Family Engagement at the White House Symposium by Deputy Assistant Secretary Libby Doggett

“Transformative family engagement is more than parent involvement- it is a shared responsibility of families, schools, and communities aimed at helping students learn and achieve.” That was the central message at the White House Symposium held on July 31st, attended by members from the White House Domestic Policy Council (DPC), U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Serving as a panelist, I was able to share both my professional and personal experiences. Early in my career, I served as a bilingual first grade teacher in Austin, Texas and witnessed first-hand the importance of engaging families to improve student achievement. Later and throughout my career, I continued to see the strong connection between family engagement and student success.

Family engagement provides a critical link between home and school and has a profound impact on a child’s learning. Last week’s symposium highlighted the importance of family engagement and advanced a framework to transform our thinking. Some of the key elements of this framework are seeing families from a strength-based perspective and sharing the responsibility for student success with families. We must work as partners adapting our work to the needs and priorities of a diverse array of families, helping all children learn and grow.

At ED, we are committed to supporting transformative family engagement, and some of the one-billion dollars allocated to the 20 Race to the Top- Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) states is being spent to support families and early childhood educators to achieve this goal. All states are finding ways to improve the quality of early learning centers and communicate the quality features to families. In Delaware, for example, the Office of Early Learning has launched a new website, Great Starts Delaware, to provide families with information on the quality of early learning programs, the latest brain research, and tips on what they can do at home to support improved outcomes for their young children. Washington State has launched “Love. Talk. Play,” a campaign that seeks to equip parents with three simple things that they can do every day to help their children learn and grow: love, talk, and play.

Waiting until preschool to implement family engagement strategies, however, is too late. Hart and Risely’s groundbreaking research highlights a “30 million word gap” between children of low-income versus higher-income families —a gap that begins before age three and can continue throughout school unless interventions are put in place. Mothers with a college education or higher spend roughly 4.5 more hours more a week directly interacting with their children than do mothers with a high school diploma or less. These findings provide us with evidence-based knowledge about the importance of family engagement, and how critical it is not only in K-12 education, but especially in birth through age five.

Most parents want what’s best for their children, but many parents do not know how important their role as their child’s first teacher is. This is what true family engagement is all about: making sure parents and caregivers have the knowledge and resources they need to help children get a strong start and reach their full potential. As we continue to look for ways to support families, it is my hope that as a country we will act to support families wherever they are to ensure all our children get the strong start that is needed for success in school and later as productive citizens.