Category Voices
Author By Steven B. Sheldon, PhD

I joined CSOS on January 3, 2000, fresh out of graduate school, excited for the opportunity to work with leading scholars in education reform and improvement, and thankful that Y2K ended up being much ado about nothing. In my eighteen years at CSOS and Johns Hopkins University, I have had the good fortune to work with outstanding colleagues on the topic of school, family, and community partnerships. Through my work with the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS) at CSOS, I have strived to conduct research that would help improve practice, and to listen to practitioners to understand where further research is needed.

Since its start in 1995, NNPS has worked with a few thousand schools and districts, helping educators and administrators learn how to develop and enact programmatic approaches to school, family, and community partnerships. In 2006, Joyce Epstein and I wrote a chapter on some of the core principles that have guided our work with schools and districts, as well as some of the lessons learned along the way. In that chapter (Moving forward: Ideas for research on school, family and community partnerships), we included two key ideas that demonstrate the overall approaches that NNPS and CSOS have for school improvement. First, our work is about equity and helping all students experience academic success. Second, research and evidence matter in how we approach school improvement. Today, perhaps, these two ideas are more important than ever.

In the past 10 years, awareness of the need for greater equity in our educational system has increased as we have become more open about the vast diversity in students’ race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and other factors. School, family, and community partnerships are essential if we want to embrace the diversity in our communities and help schools prepare every student for a successful future. To do this, I believe, we need to ask what it means to create “partnerships” in our school systems.

In many schools and districts, even in some of those working with NNPS, educators are operating with an “old” vision of school and family relationships where families serve the needs of the school. In too many places, families are contacted only when their child has a problem or when the school needs community support. Educators, too often, take a reactive approach to school and family relationships. This is not the NNPS partnership model of school, family, and community relationships.

The work of many sites with NNPS shows that being proactive and organized — intentional — about working with families and community partners is both possible and productive for families and students. A partnership approach to school and family relationships means that educators come to know and help support the families at their schools as partners in their children’s education and development. This openness to families and family diversity comes when schools “interrupt the taken-for-granted” (D. Pushor, 2010, Are schools doing enough to understand families?). Pushor described how we can reimagine common family involvement practices such as back-to-school night by moving away from established practices where teachers talk to families about classroom protocols, and, instead, enabling family members to share with teachers insights about their children. With this simple change, families and educators can begin to collaborate as partners to support the education of their children. This approach fosters partnership and equity. Many district leaders and schools in NNPS are, in fact, redesigning activities so that they no longer take parents and other family members for granted. See their reports in annual books of Promising Partnership Practices.

The other key element of work at CSOS and NNPS is the commitment to research and discovering evidence of best practice. The desire to help schools evaluate their partnership work and improve practice parallels federal policy calling for the use of research- and evidence-based practices. Federal education policy, presently through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), requires school systems to use evidence-based programs to improve instruction and reduce persistent achievement and opportunity gaps between groups of students. Current federal guidelines specify that states, districts, and schools consider the methods and results of research when deciding how to spend federal funds. Research studies on the results of NNPS approaches meet the criteria of “evidence-based” research for improving programs of family and community engagement and improving academic and behavioral results for students. The studies demonstrate the value – and necessity – of partnerships for student success. These studies also identify some of the key social structures and dynamics (e.g., teamwork and principal support) that enable partnerships to be successful.

Looking forward, CSOS and NNPS are challenged with the task of helping more school districts and their schools implement processes to continually improve and respond to the changing nature of our society and its families. Our challenge is to empower educators—teachers, principals, district leaders, state officials— to reject the “taken-for-granted” approach to partnerships and replace it with strong and thoughtful leadership of effective and equitable partnership programs. My colleagues and I will continue to address this challenge through our continuing work with the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University.

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