While decades of research underscore the value of family engagement, the crises of the past year cast a new light on its importance. First, the pandemic-forced school closures blurred lines for educators and families, as parents abruptly took a front row seat to their children’s educational experience in a way that they never had before. Second, our country’s reckoning with racial injustice highlighted an urgent need to equitably engage families in their child’s education. With this heightened recognition that meaningful and authentic family engagement is critical, it has also become clear that establishing a shared, well-understood definition of family engagement is critical.
We, at Family Engagement Lab, have been focused on family engagement since our founding in 2016. Powerful insights directly from families and educators regarding their experiences and needs, paired with research uncovering that involvement from a parent or caregiver in at-home learning has more than twice the effect on student achievement than parents’ education levels or socio-economic status (Melhuish et al., 2008) motivates our work, drives our commitment, and has shaped our definition of family engagement. Our approach to family engagement builds off of the Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnership, which highlights how relationships between educators and parents are central to supporting student and school improvement.
Summer 2020 brought to our national attention the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and the continuing injustices of racism and, in particular, anti-Black racism. It is critical for Family Engagement Lab to affirm and support Black lives and the community beyond taking a moral stand, as combating racism in schools is key to fulfilling our mission of promoting equitable family engagement.
At Family Engagement Lab, a key area of focus for us is ensuring that all families have access to information about what their child is learning in class and how they can help at home. To that end, we are examining our content with a lens toward ensuring its continued applicability for all families and its relevance across race, economic status, and language. In addition to internal edits and regular feedback from educator and family stakeholders, we are enhancing our content through a number of activities, including 1) working closely with district partners (e.g., OUSD’s English Language Learner and Multilingual Achievement team), 2) expanding our alignment with Benchmark’s Adelante curriculum, used in OUSD’s dual language programs, and 3) hiring new content writers with backgrounds and experience that support our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
To all of you who work in education, we know you are working day and night right now to figure out how to help our kids feel a sense of security, connectedness, and stability so they are ready to learn this fall.
No matter where you are in the world, this fall will be unusual. Many of the rituals of fall that provide families, students, teachers and school staff an important touchpoint during the start of the school year are going to have to be reimagined. “Back to School Nights,” welcome events, and home visits are being adapted as I type this to limit the spread of COVID-19 and to heal from trauma together, while forging the important new bonds needed between teachers, students, and parents.
At a time when discussions of the “COVID Slide” and significant projected learning loss are ubiquitous, evidence-based approaches where families accelerate student learning are a bright spot. They are a sign of hope for school systems that are engaged in the challenging process of planning for an unprecedented school year. And while families are getting extra attention now due to school closures, it is important to remember that parents play an impactful role when students are in and out of the classroom by reinforcing student learning. Indeed, families have always played a critical role in their child’s learning journey.