Planning for success: Six principles for research-based partnership programs

Joyce Epstein reports on what works to organize, strengthen, and sustain effective partnership programs in all schools. It is a matter of ‘how to’

Over the past 30 years, hundreds of studies have been conducted on the nature of family and community engagement, and effects on student success in school. Across countries, the studies overwhelmingly confirm that family and community involvement is important. Parents want to help their children do their best in school, but most need more and better information and opportunities to remain involved in their children’s education. The studies also show that when schools organize programs that engage parents in productive ways, more students do better in school at all grade levels. With so many studies pointing in the same direction, why doesn’t every school involve all students’ families in meaningful ways? It turns out to be a problem of “how to.”

What we know
● Use the term “school, family, and community partnerships” (not “parental involvement”) to recognize the shared responsibility of partners in students’ education.
● Have an official committee of teachers, principal/head teacher, and parents, who work together to plan a goal-linked partnership program for student success in school.
● Use the framework of six types of involvement to enable all parents to become involved in different ways and places.
● Evaluate progress of program outreach and quality every year.

This is not a new problem. Family engagement has been on every list of components for effective schools and whole-school reform since the 1970s. It is included in just about every school mission statement. However, as educators worked to improve the curriculum, teaching, and assessments, family and community engagement was often put “on the back burner.” In part, they considered family engagement as extra work—separate from “real” school improvement. Increasingly, educators are becoming aware that goal-linked family and community engagement is central to the success of all other school improvements, and can help more students meet curricular standards and remain in education.

Six principles

The good news is that research and field work have unlocked the secrets of “how to.” Working with hundreds of US schools and districts in the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS) at Johns Hopkins University, we have identified six principles that promote high-quality programs of family and community engagement at all school levels, and in highly diverse communities. The six principles are activated by useful tools, templates, professional development workshops, and on-going support that enable educators to plan, implement, evaluate, and continually improve their partnership programs, so that all families and the community contribute to student success in school.

1. School, family, and community partnerships is a better term than parental involvement.

The concept of partnership recognizes that parents, educators, and others in the community share responsibility for student learning and development. This approach to education is represented in the theory of overlapping spheres of influence that asserts that students learn more when parents, educators, and others in the community work together—in partnership—to guide and support their success in school. Results of many studies proved the theory by showing that students have higher achievement, more regular attendance, better behavior, and clearer plans for the future when the important people in their lives – at home, at school, and in the community – played collaborative, complementary, and supportive roles in their education.

2. School, family, and community partnerships is a multidimensional concept.

A research-generated framework of six types of involvement helps schools develop programs that involve families in different ways and locations.

  • Type 1 – Parenting activities help parents understand child and adolescent development, and help educators understand their students’ families.
  • Type 2 – Communicating activities increase two-way communication between teachers and parents about school programs and children’s progress. These could be high- or low-tech.
  • Type 3 – Volunteering activities organize parents’ time and talents, and recognize audiences as valued volunteers.
  • Type 4 – Learning-at-home activities engage parents with students on homework and other curricular activities.
  • Type 5 – Decision-making activities extend parents’ leadership skills and roles on school committees.
  • Type 6 – Collaborating-with-the-community activities mobilize resources to improve the curriculum, serve families, and increase learning opportunities for students. There are hundreds of possible practices for each type of involvement, and challenges that must be solved to reach all families. Examples of good ideas used by NNPS schools can be found at www.partnershipschools.org in the section Success Stories.

3. A program of school, family, and community partnerships is an essential component of school and classroom organization.

No longer off to the side, family and community involvement must be planned and evaluated as an organized program, like any component of school improvement. No longer one person’s responsibility (eg, the principal/head teacher or parent liaison), a partnership program must be led by an Action Team for Partnerships (ATP). Team members (educators, parents, and other partners) work together to engage all families at each grade level in activities that are linked to specific academic and behavioral goals in the school improvement plan.

4. Programs of school, family, and community partnerships require multilevel leadership.

Although educators in a single school may organize a partnership program, district leaders play important roles in establishing a culture of partnerships, and assisting all preschools, elementary, middle, and high schools to strengthen their partnership programs. Studies show that school-based teams that are assisted by district leaders have higher-quality programs with more family and community engagement than schools left to do this on their own. Over three years, schools with consistent district leadership wrote plans, conducted activities, shared best practice, and improved activities more than schools that had inconsistent or no district assistance with this work.

5. Programs of school, family and community partnerships must focus on increasing student learning and development.

Engagement activities must be purposeful to (a) produce a welcoming school climate for all partners in education and (b) contribute to achievement and school success. Studies indicate that if practices to engage parents are linked to specific goals (eg, increase achievement in reading, mathematics, and other subjects; earn high school credits; or improve student attendance, health, and postsecondary plans), then more students improve these skills and behaviors. “Fluffy” activities that are unrelated to school goals cause educators to dismiss family involvement as unimportant or extra work, rather than critical for the success of all students.

6. All programs of school, family, and community partnerships are about equity.

Historically, some parents have always been involved in their children’s education. As an official school committee, the ATP aims to engage all families, not just those who are easiest to reach. Importantly, studies show that program quality and outreach are as, or more, important than race, ethnicity, social class, marital status, mother’s education, or language spoken at home in determining whether, how, and which parents become involved in their children’s education, and how students progress in school.

It no longer is enough to identify inequalities in parental involvement or report which parents are or are not engaged. Because it is well documented that students benefit from goal-linked family and community involvement, it is critical for every school to develop a more purposeful and more equitable partnership program.

Conclusion

Research and field work tell us to replace old ways of thinking about family engagement with new ways of organizing partnership programs for student success. The six principles turn poorly planned and peripheral partnerships into well-planned and intentional programs that are central for school improvement. These principles are translated to practice through eight essential elements: strong leadership, teamwork, annual written plans, well-implemented activities, adequate funding, thoughtful evaluations, strong collegial support, and networking. From any starting point, any school or district may organize and customize their leadership and goal-linked programs to engage more and different families in ways that contribute to student success. Now, there are no secrets about how to organize programs of school, family, and community partnerships. There is only the need for action.

About the author

Joyce L. Epstein is director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships, and the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS), and research professor of sociology and education at Johns Hopkins University. She has more than 100 publications on the nature and effects of family and community involvement, and an abiding interest in the connections of research, policy, and practice.

Further reading

Website of the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS) at Johns Hopkins University: www.partnershipschools.org

Bryk AS, Sebring PB, Allensworth E, Luppescu S, and Easton JQ (2011), Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Epstein JL and Sheldon SB (2006), Moving Forward: Ideas for Research on School, Family, and Community Partnerships, 117–37, in CF Conrad and R Serlin (Eds.) SAGE Handbook for Research in Education: Engaging Ideas and Enriching Inquiry. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Epstein JL et al (2009), School, Family, and Community Partnerships: Your Handbook for Action, Third Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Epstein JL, Galindo C, and Sheldon SB (2011), Levels of Leadership: Effects of District and School Leaders on the Quality of School Programs of Family and Community Involvement. Educational Administration Quarterly, 47, 462–95.

Sheldon SB (2009), Improving Student Outcomes with School, Family, and Community Partnerships: A Research Review, 40–56, in Epstein JL, et al. (2009), School, Family, and Community Partnerships: Your Handbook for Action, Third Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Published

May 2014