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What role should families play in raising the achievement levels of children and in the efforts to reform our nation’s schools? This question has been a part of our federal, state, and local policy discourse for more than 35 years, and has recently reached a new level of prominence. More than five decades of research confirms that the engagement of families in their children’s education improves school readiness, student academic outcomes such as higher gains in reading and math achievement, and graduation rates.
In his January 2011 State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama discussed the shared responsibility of the home, school, and community in enhancing our country’s education system, stating, “the question is whether all of us—as citizens and as parents—are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed. That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities.”
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan defined his vision for how parents can and should be engaged in their children’seducation in his keynote address at the MOM Congress on Education and Learning in May 2010:
My vision for family engagement is ambitious. … I want to have too many
parents demanding excellence in their schools. I want all parents to be real
partners in education with their children’s teachers, from cradle to career. In
this partnership, students and parents should feel connected–and teachers
should feel supported. … we need parents to speak out and drive change in
chronically-underperforming schools where children receive an inferior education.
With parental support, those struggling schools need to be turned around
now—not tomorrow, because children get only one chance at an education.
The president’s and secretary’s remarks define a robust and comprehensive view of the role of families in their children’s schooling. Instead of the involvement of parents being seen as a peripheral, compliance-driven aspect of whole school improvement, their vision calls for parents to be full partners with school staff and other members of the community in the work of creating and sustaining excellent schools. A symbol of this expanded view of the family’s role is represented by the research-informed shift in terminology from “parental involvement,” representing supportive activities that occur primarily in the home between parent and child, to “family engagement,” broadening the role of families from at-home activities to full partnerships with school staff and other parents and community members in
the overall improvement of schools.
This broader definition requires that family engagement be a shared responsibility among families, school staff, and community members where families are committed to actively supporting their children’s learning and development,
and school personnel and community members are committed to engaging and partnering with families in meaningful and culturally respectful ways. This shared responsibility must be continuous across a child’s lifespan, from cradle to career. And it must occur in multiple settings where children learn: at home, at school, and in community settings.
Given this more comprehensive vision of family engagement, this paper examines the role federal policy can play, specifically, within the parent involvement provisions of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, in moving
this more comprehensive vision of family engagement from theory to practice as well as fulfilling the president’s and secretary’s family engagement goals of shared responsibility and the cultivation of parent capacity to demand excellence in their schools. This analysis focuses most directly on the national dialogue concerning the current and proposed use of Title I set-aside funds, or funds specifically designated by Congress for family engagement in their children’s education.
The most recent reauthorization of Title I of ESEA in 2002, known more familiarly as the No Child Left Behind Act, addresses family engagement in a number of sections, most notably in Section 1118 of Title I. Through Section 1118,
districts receiving more than $500,000 in Title I funds must set aside at least 1 percent for family engagement activities and distribute at least 95 percent of those funds to Title I schools. In May 2010 Secretary Duncan announced the
Education Department’s proposal to double the set-aside from 1 percent to 2 percent as well as create an optional Family Engagement and Responsibility fund for state departments of education to build with existing Title I funds. The new fund
would be used to launch state-run competitions to support innovative and effective local family engagement initiatives.
The purpose of this paper is to review the history and evolution of the Title I parent involvement provisions and to use the lessons learned from this history to assess the efficacy of these provisions and the latest U.S. Department of Education proposals for reauthorization. Through data collected from interviews with seven key informants, alongside a review of the history of the parent involvement language in Title I, this paper identifies five major themes that reveal shifts over time in the intent and purpose of the law as well as recurring challenges that impede the application of the law in practice:
• A decrease in the focus on and commitment to building the capacity of families
and school personnel to create and sustain partnerships that support children’s
learning and development
• The promotion of “random acts” of family engagement versus systemic initiatives
• A focus on a compliance versus an improvement mindset for family engagement
• A shift in the emphasis of family engagement from collective growth to individual
• A limited commitment to monitoring and evaluation
Using these themes as a foundation, this paper offers five recommendations for consideration for the reauthorization of ESEA. Several of the recommendations are aligned with those in the Family Engagement in Education Act of 2011, a
proposal crafted by the National Family, School, and Community Engagement Working Group, a nationwide team of family and community engagement researchers, advocacy groups, practitioners, and policymakers. The five recommendations
provided here are designed to complement, not repeat, those offered in the Family Engagement in Education Act:
• Make permanent the increase in the minimum set-aside figure from 1 percent to at least 2 percent, and revise the statutory language in Section 1118 to direct this setaside funding and the proposed Family Engagement and Opportunity Fund toward the design and implementation of initiatives that build the capacity of families and school staff to partner to improve student achievement and school quality.
• Reconsider the allocation formula for the distribution of the family engagement set-aside funds to the districts and schools in order to promote systemic, districtwide forms of engagement.
• Change the statutory language to require that schools involve Title I parents in governance and decision making.
• Revise the statutory language regarding parent involvement policies and compacts to assure alignment with whole school improvement goals of the district and schools.
• Provide support to monitor and research innovative family engagement strategies and initiatives to build the knowledge base on best practice initiatives and strategies.
The next reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will be introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate later this year. The analysis and recommendations in the pages that follow underscore for members of both chambers of Congress the critical need for education reform that embraces parents and community members fully as partners in children’s education and school improvement.
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