Mobilizing Leadership to Support Family Engagement

by Lacy Wood

We have long recognized the critical importance of strong leadership in education.  Having an influential, supportive leader can make or break many initiatives, including those to engage families. Working to support family engagement over the years, I have seen that family engagement initiatives are successful only when they have buy-in and support from leadership.

Although many leaders mention the importance of families to children’s learning, there is still a persistent implementation gap. Acknowledging that it’s important is not the same as taking the time to implement effective strategies. Why is this the case?  Why don’t we address family engagement with the same level of urgency and careful attention that we do other areas of educational practice?

Yes, family engagement can be time consuming, challenging, and imprecise. Because it has been a low priority, resources are scarce. Only rarely do new teachers and educators have the opportunity to learn and study family engagement in their preservice programs. These are a few of many reasons why family engagement does not draw the attention and support that other essential elements of school reform receive. Yet decades of research demonstrates that when teachers engage families in purposeful and meaningful ways to support their child’s education, the benefits for students and schools can be both strong and sustained.

We must not only call on top leaders to support programs, policies, and funding so that engagement programs can be successful; we also need to grow new leaders in our field.

Building those important infrastructure supports for our family engagement programs is just as important as it is for other areas of education and school improvement. Creating staff positions dedicated to family engagement and providing necessary supports and resources to grow them into leaders can be key to the success of engagement programs.

All too often, the responsibility for family engagement is lumped in with other unrelated assignments, or handed off to a low-level staff member buried in the federal programs office. Having at least one dedicated and highly placed family engagement professional in each state, district, and school is critical to creating sustained programs. We need to provide supports to grow these staff into leaders that can advocate for programs and bring in resources.

I chair a leadership collaborative of state education agency (SEA) family engagement leaders across the United States. The Family Engagement State Leaders Network was established to build the capacity of state-level leaders so they can support, scale-up, and sustain statewide family engagement initiatives. We just held our annual meeting in Pittsburgh, PA, in conjunction with IEL’s National Family and Community Engagement Conference.

After working with these state leaders for several years, it is heartening to see how far some of these states have advanced meaningful, high-impact family engagement. I credit this work to these SEA leaders. They work tirelessly, often with only a small portion of their job dedicated to family engagement and cobbled-together budgets, to make these initiatives successful.

One aspect of their leadership really stands out: they are adept at finding and sharing funds and resources across multiple programs and funding streams to support statewide family engagement initiatives.  As they leverage this funding, they are also modeling ways districts can blend these resources for their schools.

For example, several states have moved ahead to revitalize family engagement in Title I schools by paying close attention to the law, which requires that school staff and parents share the responsibility for improving children’s learning and must have regular, meaningful, two-way communication. Several have also created state policy frameworks for family engagement that apply to all education programs, drawing on the Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships released by the U.S. Department of Education in 2014.

Their leadership is changing practice in districts and schools across the country. What is your state doing to advance high-impact family engagement? Contact me to see if your state education agency is represented in our Family Engagement State Leaders Network.

Lacy Wood – principal TA consultant, American Institutes for Research, and NAFSCE Board Member