» A Culture that Engages Every Family, Steven M. Constantino, Ed.D.
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"How many effective schools would you have to see to be persuaded of the educability of poor children? If your answer is more than one, then I submit that you have reasons of your own for preferring to believe that pupil performance derives from family background instead of school response to family background. We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven't so far." --Ronald Edmonds
In most cases, school personnel see families in one of two ways: as assets, or liabilities. There rarely is a middle ground. The beliefs and values of individuals within an organization, especially those of the leadership, drive the direction of the organization and the degree to which the organization achieves its intended goals.
The New Standards for Global Family Engagement ™ emphasize the need for a culture that is inclusive of every family. To achieve this first and perhaps most critical step means that the leaders of schools and districts must truly embrace the concept of engaging every family and believe that regardless of the situation, there is value in devoting energy to engaging those that are disengaged or disenfranchised and building strong relationships with them.
I both enjoy and get frustrated by “yeah, but” types of conversations. For example, consider this exchange between a school principal and myself a few years ago. I had just finished a keynote presentation about how family engagement helped to turn our high school from a struggling school to a school that achieved national and international acclaim. As I had done on hundreds of occasions, I weaved research, practice, application, and results into my speech to demonstrate that a real commitment to engaging every family of every child produces tangible dividends.
“Your story is very impressive,” said the principal. “But, tell me, do you have another example of how your ideas translate into success?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean, your success was because of you. I want to hear another example of how family engagement improved a school. Some school that is not yours, or a school that doesn’t have you.”
“You said my story was impressive. Is my story not convincing enough? I promise you it’s the truth!”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” my new friend said. “You have a powerful story and a powerful message. But it is only one school.”
Ah ha, I thought to myself. Now we had arrived at the nexus of the issue. One example of family engagement supporting improved student learning was not enough. “How many examples do I need to give you in order for you to believe the concept?”
“More than just one, I guess,” said my friend, not sure that his response was appropriate.
I thought about my response for a moment.
“I could give you example after example of school’s that experienced successful student achievement and included effective family engagement as a central reform. I could cite over 40 years of research to you and I could tell you that every year hundreds of studies are done which continue to prove one salient point, that being, family engagement is a critical component to lasting school improvement. But somehow I get the feeling that after I was done, it still wouldn’t be enough. So, help me here – how many examples constitute enough evidence? There is a part of me that thinks, and please don’t be offended, but a part of me thinks that no matter how many examples I give you, the number will be inadequate to convince you that devoting time and energy to effective family engagement is worthwhile and critical to your school’s overall continuous improvement. In my opinion one example should be plenty. If I have to give you more than one, perhaps you are just not ready to accept or believe the research and best practice that has been shared with you today. I certainly respect your right to accept or reject anything that I or any other researcher/practitioner has to say.”
I took a breath, but I wasn’t done.
“If I were talking about assessment, professional learning communities, curriculum, instructional practice, or school safety and shared tremendous successes with you in those arenas, would you have asked me the same question?” I didn’t wait for an answer. “My hypothesis is that you would not have asked me. You would have accepted the research and evidence of practical application as enough to convince you to do whatever I said you should do. But because the topic is about families and the challenges of instituting large-scale family engagement practice as a central school reform perhaps seems too daunting, your skepticism led you to ask me your question.”
A bit stunned, the principal shook my hand, mumbled something about too much to think about, and wandered off into the crowd. The next three people in the line waiting to meet me also turned and walked away.
I am not quite sure what motivated me to respond to the principal in the manner that I did. I did not know him or his school. His unfortunate happenstance was to be the umpteenth-thousandth person to ask me the same question. One story is never good enough. Why? What is it about family engagement that stirs so much skepticism or fear within educators? Why do we think we can continue doing what we have always done and expect that our situation will improve? To take one giant step forward, we need to stop asking why family engagement is important. The question should be more focused on just exactly what we plan on doing about it.
Posted on July 2, 2012 by Steven M. Constantino, Ed.D.
Steve Constantino is an author, speaker, and thought leader in the field of family engagement as well as the superintendent of the Williamsburg-James City County School District in Williamsburg, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter.
©2012 Steven M. Constantino. All rights reserved
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Tags: 2-way communication, *School-Family Partnership, Building trust & respect, Ed Reform, Theory-Research
Posted July 9, 2012 by Jamie Billingham
This is a great post that ask a very relevant question. We do know why parent and community engagement is important. Could it be that it's just not the right kind of "why?
I posted more on this on the thoughtstream.ca blog. Thanks for the inspiration!
Posted July 2, 2012 by Steve Constantino
Great comments. The beauty of family engagement is that it is not about doing more or extra, it's about doing what we already do, only differently. Our teachers and principals cannot add to their plates. Following a family engagement process could actually remove items! Thanks for all you do! I hope you have a restful and recharging summer!!
Posted July 2, 2012 by Jody McVittie
I suspect that it isn't the number of schools that matters. It is the paradigm shift and specific tools that are needed. Engaging with families is not YET a part of teacher or administrator education. When people are already overwhelmed by their job it is hard to start something that looks messy. I'm guessing some scaffolded first steps for success might be helpful.
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