For Students to Succeed, Family Engagement is Key

By Yolanda Abel

Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.
Horace Mann

This is one of my favorite quotes and I have used it often throughout my career in education. Both of my parents come from small towns in South Carolina, and I have seen and lived the truth of this statement in my immediate and extended family. My parents and their siblings have more education than their grandparents. For the most part, but not in totality, my first cousins and I have similar educational patterns of our parents and aunts and uncles. One of the things that I think influenced all of us was the belief in education as a pathway of social mobility. Having worked in education for over 25 years in Baltimore, I am not certain the sentiment embodied in this quote holds true for today’s youth of color in cities like Baltimore.

If you are involved in education, in any capacity, especially in urban areas, you have heard the term achievement gap. It is also called the opportunity gap or the excellence gap. In a nutshell, it refers to the underperformance of students of color and from low-income backgrounds in relation to their white and more affluent peers. There are a variety of ways in which this issue—the underperformance of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students—can be addressed. School, family and community partnerships are one—and one I believe in strongly based on my own family history and the related research. Joyce Epstein, a professor of education at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, conceptualized family engagement in six broad types: (a) parenting, (b) communicating, (c) volunteering, (d) learning at home, (e) decision-making, and (f) collaborating with the community. These six conceptualizations appeal to me because they are broad enough to cover a range of actions and beliefs, and help to make school, family and community partnerships inclusive.

Teachers who are often white and middle class tend to make up the majority of the teaching force in public urban schools. The conceptualizations of family engagement between teachers and CLD students’ families can vary greatly. On the first night of class, I asked my graduate students, who are mostly teachers, to think about how their parents or guardians were involved in their P-12 schooling. Next, I ask them to think about their students, select one, and reflect on how the students’ parents or guardians are involved. Usually, it’s not in the same ways. We continue our discussion and begin unpacking these actions and, quite often, engagement is bifurcated as good or bad. Good is conceptualized as parents coming to school and being the traditional class parent, and bad is conceptualized as parents who do not come to school. I then share that my parents did not go to my schools outside of graduations. My parents encouraged me, sent me school regularly, encouraged me to read, etc. I graduated with a Regents diploma and my parents did not come to school. So, it is possible to do well in school even if your parents do not come to school. If the goal is for students to do well, then our conceptualization of parent engagement needs to be broader.

Parenting, learning at home, communication and collaborating with the community are types of engagement that my parents were actively involved with to support my P-12 learning. So, one goal of my class is to expand teachers’ conceptualization of what engagement is and the various ways in which it might occur. Teachers’ impact extends beyond the academics of their students. One of the predictors of African-American father engagement is whether they had teachers who cared when they were in P-12 school. Epstein’s six types often collapse into home-based engagement and school-based engagement. Fathers often engage in home-based activities, like reading to a child or going to the library. Therefore, it is imperative that teachers and school administrators have a broader perspective of what engagement means and how it looks, and utilize existing social capital as they partner with students and their families in ways that increase and integrate the social capital of all involved.

A quality educational experience for all students, especially CLD students, is of paramount importance for fostering civic engagement and helping to educate individuals so they can fully embrace the possibilities of today’s global world and the unknown possibilities of tomorrow.

Yolanda Abel is an associate professor of education at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.