Chapter Eight: Parents and Families, Communities and Schools
Despite the sustained interest in their potential for improved school experiences, family-school relationships often remain, as noted earlier, poorly developed. The notion of family-school partnerships can leave unstated important questions of equity and reciprocity within the design and implementation of these partnerships. Further, as a number of authors have noted, the meaningful restructuring of traditional school-family relationships usually requires the commitment of substantial resources, including teacher and parent capacity development.
A major criticism of many parent involvement initiatives is that they are “school-centric” rather than “community-centric” in their design and as such constitute the imposition of a particular, class-based and culturally biased, parenting style and intrusion into family life, which has the potential to increase rather than decrease educational inequality. Despite the language of family-school “partnerships” or the “co-construction of student learning”, Pushor and Ruitenberg (2005) argue that in school-centric approaches what is to constitute “parent involvement” is defined and controlled by school administrators and teachers and affords little or no space for parent knowledge of voice in the construction of their children’s school experience or in the school’s place within the local community. Preferring the terms “community-centric” and “parent engagement” they state:
engagement implies enabling parents to take their place alongside educators in the schooling of their children, fitting together their knowledge of children, of teaching and learning, with teachers’ knowledge. With parent engagement, possibilities are created for the structure of schooling to be flattened, power and authority to be shared by educators and parents, and the agenda being served to be mutually determined and mutually beneficial. (p.13)
Such an approach, they argue, offers the promise of family-school partnerships that are shaped by the specific social and cultural contexts of individual schools, and initiatives that are appropriate to diverse family and community needs and values.
Addressing the core issue of capacity and capacity-building in the development of family-school partnerships in the USA, a valuable report from the Southwest Education Development Laboratory (2013) warns that:
these [programs] are often predicated on a fundamental assumption: that the educators and families charged with developing effective partnerships between home and school already possess the requisite skills, knowledge, confidence, and belief systems—in other words, the collective capacity—to successfully implement and sustain these important home–school relationships. Unfortunately, this assumption is deeply flawed. Principals and teachers receive little training for engaging families and report feeling under-prepared, despite valuing relationships with families. Parents meanwhile—particularly low-income and limited-English-proficient parents—face multiple barriers to engagement, often lacking access to the social capital and understanding of the school system necessary to take effective action on behalf of their children. Without attention to training and capacity building, well-intentioned partnership efforts fall flat. Rather than promoting equal partnerships between parents and schools at a systemic level, these initiatives default to one-way communication and “random acts of engagement” such as poorly attended parent nights. (pp. 5-6)
Box 8.6.1 below provides an example of what might constitute a professional development curriculum for parent engagement.
Contending that currently, educators across North America are simply not prepared to understand and establish effective relationships with parents, Pushor and Amendt (2018) suggest the following elements for a “curriculum of parents”. An invitation to teachers “to:
- sustain their learning over time,
- immerse themselves in scholarly readings and discussions,
- learn with and from experiences with families and parents,
- invest personally by reflecting upon and sharing their own family stories,
- position themselves as vulnerable and as learners in new learning contexts, and,
- put their learning into practice by designing and trying something new or by remaking a former practice in a new way”. (p. 204)
For a school staff to undertake this work, Pushor and Amendt suggest requires a process of “interruption” and “dis-positioning” that allows them to interrogate their taken-for-granted thinking and practices and take up new positions grounded in a ‘family-centric’ perspective.
Critical to achieving this they suggest are:
- Creating a safe and educative learning environment: Exploring deeply engrained assumptions and beliefs about parents can only take place when there is a shared sense of trust and willingness engage in vulnerable conversations. Such a climate has to be developed and nurtured.
- Scaffolding authentic experiences for staff: Creating professional development opportunities, such as a guided community walk, for teachers and community members to mingle and begin to understand each other. Authentic and meaningful time with parents using a strength-based and asset-focused approach
- Bringing together experience and education: This work is both emotional and intellectual. Concepts from the academic and professional literature allows educators to bring deeper understanding to their knowing.
- Joining together: Establishing shared beliefs with parents and community – a belief that “this school belongs to all of us”.
- Co-constructing new school practices: Creating a family-centric environment allows for systematic changes that foreground parental engagement and the co-creation new relationships and practices that enhance everyone’s school experiences/education.
Source. Adapted from Pushor, D., & Amendt, T. (2018). Leading an examination of beliefs and assumptions about parents. School Leadership and Management, 38(2), 202-221.