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Should Working With Families Be a Core Skill for Teachers?

As a parent of a student with a disability, Jessica Battle has become well-versed in federal law. She knows what accommodations her daughter, now a senior in high school, needs so she can learn, and she’s well aware of what teachers are required to do under her Individualized Education Program, or IEP.

So when she found out her daughter’s teacher wasn’t following the IEP and providing her accommodations in class, Battle didn’t hesitate to call a meeting.

“We go in and the teacher [said], ‘I’m just going to let you know, I don’t know what an IEP is,’” Battle said.

The experience underscored a belief Battle and many other parents of students with special needs have long had about the school system: They’re the sole advocates for their children, and they have to embrace that role.

“As parents, we have to know everything on the IEP,” Battle said.

Parent involvement is required by federal special education law in determining the services a student with special needs receives. But too few educators are equipped to work effectively with families, whether it’s navigating the intricacies of special education services or more generally inviting parents to be partners in their kids’ education.

Researchers agree that robust parent and family engagement, in which schools build trusting, reciprocal relationships with students’ caregivers, is a promising strategy that can help reduce chronic absenteeism, cut dropout rates, and boost academic achievement. For it to be effective, everyone in a school system—teachers, principals, and superintendents—needs to be working with families to focus on student achievement and build long-lasting trust in the school system.

Far too many educators, however, view parent and family engagement as an “add-on” to their overall practice, said Karen Mapp, an educational leadership professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who has focused her research on parent and family engagement strategies.

That’s not their fault, she said.

Parent and family engagement often isn’t built into the college and university programs that prepare the vast majority of America’s teachers for the classroom. Only 51 percent of educator-preparation programs provide at least one course on parent and family engagement, according to a 2021 survey from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, or AACTE, and the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement, or NAFSCE. And not all of those courses are required.

That number has barely grown over the past 20 years, according to the survey, and 55 percent of university department heads believe their students are less prepared for family engagement than other facets of teaching.

Additionally, most states don’t have any laws or policies requiring schools to train teachers in family engagement after they’ve entered the classroom. Colorado and Nevada are the only states with laws requiring that their departments of education employ staffers who support districts in developing and implementing family and community engagement policies and practices.

“We have trained people to think that this is an add-on, or we have not trained them at all,” Mapp said. “If we don’t train them, then of course they’re going to think this is something that’s not important.”

NAFSCE and the Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity, a professional development organization, have partnered with the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation—the accrediting body for 551 college and university teacher-prep programs—to revise the standards those programs have to meet to include a focus on parent engagement. CAEP’s competitor, the 6-year-old Association for Advancing Quality in Educator Preparation, also developed its teacher preparation standards with a focus on parent and family engagement. The two accrediting organizations account for the vast majority of preparation programs.

But parent and family engagement has yet to catch on as a core skill for educators or as a core function for school systems.

Training aspiring teachers to empower parents

Battle didn’t always know how to best serve her daughter. But she received special training few other parents can access. The Rocky Mount, N.C., mom learned almost everything she knows about IEPs and disability accommodations from Patricia Brewer, a professor in teacher education at North Carolina Wesleyan University.

For the past nine years, Brewer has hosted an after-school program for local families of students with disabilities where students receive tutoring from special education teacher candidates while Brewer teaches their parents to advocate for their kids.

“I tell them, you never, ever go to a meeting without paperwork in your hand,” Brewer said. “You never, ever go to a meeting without questions. You never, ever go to a meeting without knowing and understanding your child’s IEP. You get to know as much as you possibly can so you can ask those questions, and if you don’t know, you ask. You have that right.”

The lessons cover a range of topics, such as what it means to have an IEP, students’ and parents’ rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, signs of academic and behavior problems, interpreting assessment data, becoming an effective advocate for students, and the questions parents should ask in meetings with teachers.

They have been a game changer for Battle and other parents in the program, who say they feel more confident and less frustrated in dealing with their school systems.

“Now when I go in, even to her middle school, they were like, ‘Oh, she’s a Wesleyan parent,’” Battle said. “[The teachers] were way more prepared. They knew I knew the rights and the laws and everything we were taught here by Dr. Brewer.”

Brewer started the program when she realized that many parents in Rocky Mount, where North Carolina Wesleyan is located, didn’t have a solid understanding of IEPs or what the law requires for family participation in shaping special education plans and arrangements.

Federal law requires one or both parents to be present at every IEP meeting, in which teachers and families discuss a student’s progress on their education plan and adjust accommodations if necessary. Teachers are required to schedule meetings early enough to ensure parents can attend, and to plan meetings at a mutually convenient time and place, according to the U.S. Department of Education. When neither parent can attend an IEP meeting in person, schools have to offer a virtual or teleconference option.

Brewer thought she could help by giving parents the tools they need to be advocates while also teaching her students—future teachers—effective practices for working with parents.

“I impress upon [my students] that parents are equal partners,” Brewer said. “You all are going to be teachers. You all want to be great teachers. But at the same time, you must understand that these kids’ parents, they are equal to you, your partners, and I want you to see them as [such.]”

The program has helped teacher candidates, even those who don’t plan on specializing in special education, feel more confident about communicating with parents.

“Without this classroom, without this tutoring program, I would not have any idea what I’m hearing in these [IEP] meetings,” said Alina Smith, a special education and elementary education major. “The biggest thing I’ve learned through this is that parents are their child’s biggest advocates.”

Standards are a first step

Programs like Brewer’s are rare but growing, said Mark LaCelle-Peterson, president of the Association for Advancing Quality in Educator Preparation.

Since it began in 2018, the organization, which accredits 200 universities including North Carolina Wesleyan, has required through its standards that programs include parent engagement in their courses.

The standards state that graduating teacher candidates must be prepared to “understand and engage local school and cultural communities, and communicate and foster relationships with families/guardians/caregivers in a variety of communities.”

The idea is to provide a “floor” for college programs and let them build from there, LaCelle-Peterson said.

“We all agree on what’s important,” he said. “Now, you have to figure out how you’re going to do it and document it.”

In 2022, CAEP, the country’s largest accreditor for educator preparation programs, revised its standards to include family and community engagement. The updated standards require teacher candidates to demonstrate that they can “work effectively with diverse P-12 students and their families.”

“We were somewhat surprised that a lot of universities just took these and made them into a course because they thought this is really a worthwhile focus,” said Christopher Koch, CAEP’s president. “The folks they’re preparing need to be able to work with different kinds of families—families where English may not be spoken in the home, families who are homeless.”

The goal was to create a baseline agreement among educator groups to improve instruction on parent engagement, said Vito Borrello, executive director of the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement, which helped CAEP develop the standards.

“There is a desire now in higher education to address this in ways that have not been addressed before,” Borrello said. “There’s an understanding that this needs to happen, there’s a desire for this to happen.”

What state agencies can do

While teacher-prep programs gradually incorporate more training on parent engagement, there’s still not much state-level emphasis on ensuring schools treat parents as partners, especially as parents’ trust in overall school systems has become a pressure point following the pandemic.

Darcy Hutchins is the director of family, school, and community partnerships in Colorado’s education department. She’s one of just two people in the entire country with a legally required, state agency job focused on family and community engagement.

Hutchins’ office—which has one other employee—is charged with helping the state’s schools and districts engage effectively with families and their communities. She serves as a resource for districts, sharing what’s worked well elsewhere through webinars, meetings with district family engagement coordinators, and in-person district visits. She also works with lower-performing schools to increase parent engagement, and she works on ensuring school boards adopt parent engagement policies.

Hutchins also oversees the State Advisory Council for Parent Involvement in Education, which comprises parents, teachers, nonprofit leaders, state education officials, and higher education leaders. In recent years, the council has developed an online course to help families understand school family engagement programs, participated in NAFSCE’s development of the national Educator Preparation Framework for Family and Community Partnerships, developed a family and community engagement communications toolkit for schools, and expanded the state’s “promising partnerships practices,” a collection of strategies schools can use to improve family and community engagement.

The council was established in 2009 when Colorado enacted its initial law to increase parent involvement. That law established a grant program to help school districts expand parent engagement and required Colorado districts to set up local parent and family advisory committees that mirror the statewide one. In 2013, lawmakers amended the law to add Hutchins’ role and further boost family engagement resources.

“What [the law] really did was elevate family engagement pieces in other legislation that oftentimes get backburnered,” Hutchins, who is the first to serve in the position, said. “It really highlighted the importance of having a family engagement policy.”

The vast majority of Hutchins’ work involves helping districts create parent and family engagement policies that fit their communities. Sometimes that means hosting “coffee chat” meetings with district leaders where they share experiences and best practices. Other times, it’s traveling to rural communities to listen to the challenges they’re facing.

In Nevada, the only other state with a family engagement office required by law, the education department also provides districts with advice on the development and implementation of family engagement practices, works with an advisory council to develop family engagement policies, and shares best practices with schools and districts.

One of the top strategies Hutchins has promoted in Colorado is parent-teacher home visits, in which teachers hold meetings at parents’ homes to strengthen relationships and build trust. The strategy has been especially useful in Denver, where home visits have helped connect the parents of thousands of newly arrived students to the school system.

“If we focus on those relationship-building types of initiatives, that’s when efficacy increases, that’s when a sense of belonging increases, and students will want to be in school,” she said.

Making parent engagement a priority for the future

Hutchins, who began her career as a 1st grade teacher in Baltimore, agrees with Borrello and Mapp that much more needs to be done to make parent engagement a systemic priority in public education.

“I went through a traditional ed prep program, knowing I wanted to be an elementary school teacher, [and] we never talked about parent and family engagement,” Hutchins said. “You’re just sort of thrown in and expected to know what to do.”

Colorado was one of the states to help the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement develop its effective family partnerships framework—which outlines best practices for districts, teacher-prep programs, and state education departments to improve family engagement. The state has also received one of the association’s Family Engagement and Educator Preparation Innovation Project grants to work on incorporating family engagement into teacher training.

With the help of that grant, the state has convened a group of colleges and universities that come together to develop family engagement courses and discuss how to embed family and parent engagement in other teacher preparation classes.

Other national organizations are also highlighting the importance of family engagement. The National Parent Teacher Association has its own standards, which provide districts with a guide on improving parent and family engagement. The National Education Association—the nation’s largest teachers’ union—has a partnership with WETA, a PBS station in Alexandria, Va., to provide free resources and courses for educators on parent engagement.

“If we’re going to have truly sustained impact,” Borrello said, “we need to have that long-term approach, while we’re providing in-service programs, training principals, training superintendents, and training teachers in ways that are creating that welcome environment, embracing families as partners.”

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