Training School Professionals to Engage Families: A Pilot University/State Department of Education Partnership

Article excerpt

Abstract

Federal and professional mandates call for increased family involvement in education, yet most teacher preparation programs do not teach skills necessary to engage families in a thorough or systematic manner. The current project addressed this training deficit by offering a program that included a sequence of three graduate courses to a cohort of school professionals in a high-need school district. Courses were taught at a school within that district and included projects designed to address the needs of the community in which the participants were employed. Qualitative analysis suggests that following completion of the courses, school professionals enhanced their ability to engage families and experienced positive changes in attitude toward family-professional collaboration. Importantly, participants were able to articulate specific ways in which they planned to utilize new skills in the school setting. A unique aspect of this study was investigation of continued use of new knowledge and skills and implementation of action plans six months post-training.

Key words: family, collaboration, professionals, development, involvement, schools, engagement, families, university, partnerships, education, courses

Introduction

Survey data collected from the 1980s through the present suggest that, in spite of federal and professional organization mandates calling for increased family involvement in education, teacher preparation programs have not been able to incorporate more than minimal attention to this critical area into an already ambitious curricula (Epstein & Sanders, 2006; Hiatt-Michael, 2006). In a comprehensive overview of current practices related to teacher preparation, Hiatt-Michael (2006) states that "(t)he major emphasis in teacher preparation programs is on the technical aspects of professional performance, not the deeply interpersonal aspects of their work" (p. 12). Yet knowledge about families and how to work effectively with them is not inherent; one does not become an expert in facilitating family-professional collaboration merely because one has been part of a family. Professionals who work with families need to be familiar with the empirical knowledge underlying the collaborative process and, with guidance, directly apply this knowledge base in authentic situations. This paper describes a pilot university/state department of education partnership designed to improve school-based professionals' skills in and attitudes toward collaboration with families. The project relied on both direct instruction and field experiences that explored and addressed the needs of participants' school communities.

The most recent exploration of the extent to which teacher preparation programs address family involvement was conducted by Epstein and Sanders (2006) who collected survey data from administrators in 161 teacher education programs. While the purpose of the survey was broad, most relevant to the current project was data obtained on the nature and extent of coursework that addressed family involvement. Results were encouraging. Approximately 60% of institutions responding to the survey reported offering an entire course related to family involvement, with about two-thirds of those institutions reporting that the course was required, not optional. Over 90% reported that family involvement was covered as a topic in at least one course. Individuals enrolled in programs emphasizing early childhood and special education were most likely to report the availability of coursework related to family engagement.

In spite of this positive trend, Epstein and Sanders (2006) report that "most [school, college, and department of education] leaders reported that their recent graduates were not well prepared to conduct programs and practices of school, family, and community partnerships" (p. 95). This is consistent with survey data collected as part of Harvard's Education Schools Project (Levine, 2006). …