What Do We Mean By Research in Family Engagement?

What Do We Mean by Research in Family Engagement?

One of the goals of this course is to introduce you to the value of family engagement. We all want to know how can research allow us to move forward in our work and make effective and meaningful changes in our practice.

When I visit schools to talk about the importance of family engagement, I’m often asked, OK, if I do this one intervention, will I be able to prove that it has had an impact on student test scores?

My answer is always, eh, it’s a little more complicated than that. There’s a world of wonderful research about the effectiveness of different family engagement interventions, and we’ll look at some of it in this course.

We’re going to identify the different types of research studies you’ll be exposed to; their importance, their tools, and how you can think about them in the context of your world and practice.

We want to ground you in how to think about research before you read research. We want to ground you and what we do know and why.

Cause & Effect in Education Research

Practitioners often ask Dr. Mapp whether and how they can prove that family engagement causes improvements in student outcomes. I briefly discuss what it means to show cause and effect from a research perspective.

Isolating cause and effect is a key challenge for researchers studying the effectiveness of a program or policy. For example, imagine a school implements a new family engagement program in the fall. That spring, academic achievement increases for students whose families participated in the program. Based on this information, is it safe to conclude that the program caused the improvement?

Not yet.

It turns out to be more complicated because there could be factors beyond the program that led to the improvement. At this point, we know participation correlates with academic improvement, but we can’t be sure it caused those improvements.

Correlational evidence can be powerful and useful, but it can be easy to confuse correlation with causation. For example, this figure shows that both golf course revenues and per capita consumption of cheese increased from 2000 to 2009.

However, just because increases in these two things are correlated doesn’t mean that playing golf causes people to eat more cheese. Similarly, revenue from arcades rose along with the number of computer science doctorates awarded in the US. But based on this evidence alone, we would not want to conclude that playing arcade games leads people to earn PhDs.

There was likely a third factor at play. For instance, arcade revenue and computer science degrees may rise together at times when the use of technology is increasing nationwide. It might be the increase in technology use that caused increases in both game revenue and computer science degrees.

Going back to our education example, we know some families participated in the family engagement program and children in those families did better in school.

Again, the research shows a correlation, but is there causation? The program might have caused the improvement, but alternatively, there could be factors beyond the program responsible for both the parental participation and the achievement growth of their kids.

For instance, it could be that the parents who participated in the program were already more motivated to help their child learn in school than parents who didn’t participate.

To that end, they help their kids with homework, sign their kids up for tutoring, and sign themselves up for the family engagement program.

Perhaps it was this third factor– parental motivation–that led to improved achievement and not the family engagement program. So how would researchers figure out if the program caused the change?

Ideally, we run randomized controlled trials, also called RCTs or field experiments, just like the method medical researchers use to carefully test new medications. In an RCT, some parents are randomly assigned to a treatment group that receives the new family engagement program, while the rest are assigned to a control group, which does not get the program. Random assignment ensures that the two groups are, on average, the same in terms of their motivation, race, education, and all other attributes.

The only difference between the two groups is that one experienced the family engagement program. This allows researchers to say that differences and outcomes between the two groups are in fact caused by the program itself.

Despite this important benefit, RCTs aren’t always possible and there’s a lot we can learn from other kinds of research. For example, no one conducted an RCT to show causation between cigarettes and cancer, but a large body of descriptive research made a compelling case for the connection.

In education, researchers often use quasi experimental or descriptive studies. For example, researchers might compare participants in our new family engagement program to demographically and motivationally similar parents at a different school that did not offer the program.

The more similar the comparison and the treatment group, the more we can be confident that the program, as opposed to differences between the two groups, helped to improve student outcomes. The more different the two groups, the more cautious we should be about drawing conclusions related to the program’s effectiveness.

I hope this has cleared up some of your questions around cause and effect.

Do We Know Enough to Move Forward

You and I both know that in addition to some of the wrangling over the language about the terminology, there’s also been some wrangling over whether or not we know enough to actually move forward with partnerships.

Can you say what we do know about the relationship between how families are engaged in their children’s education, and any outcomes that are good outcomes for kids?

So there’s two audiences that I try to pay attention to. One is a research audience. There’s always room for more and better research studies. We can always say we don’t know enough, we need better data, we need better methods.

We have to keep pressing the research agenda forward, because a research agenda, or a scientific question, is never fully answered. So we need to always do more. However, we also want to pay attention to practice. And in practice, we’ve been studying this– in part, we’ve been studying this– for a long time.

So over the past 30 years now, there literally have been hundreds of studies by literally hundreds of researchers with all different methods, different populations and samples, different research questions.

We know a great deal about what is family engagement, how can schools help to engage families who are presently unengaged, so that their children do better in school. I don’t have patience when people say we don’t know enough to get started, to help schools engage those families who right now tell us I would be involved if only the schools would give me some good and timely information.

I would like to help my youngsters, but now that they’ve moved from elementary to middle, or to high school, I’m not sure what to do. We know enough because there have been over 30 years– an accumulation of studies in a literature base– in a knowledge base– so people can understand the structures and the processes that will help any school have a program that will engage all families in ways that will benefit their students.

So we need to know more all the time, but we know enough to help schools get started.

Situating Family Engagement

In this section, my goal is to introduce you to a few of the research studies and concepts that appear over and over again as fundamental and foundational to the field of family engagement.

This won’t be an exhaustive list, but there are some of my favorites. So first, a little history lesson. Some of you may be wondering when did this concept of a family’s role in their child’s education gain prominence? A watershed moment came in 1966 with the publication of the “Equality of Educational Opportunity” a report written by James Colemant.

This study stated that student background, including family education and economic status was more important in determining student success than the quality of their schools and teachers.

In fact, some of the headlines about the report stated, schools don’t matter. Although we have research that complicates this narrative, families and communities’ roles communities’ role became a more focused area of study. As a result of the Coleman report, more research was done on families’ role in shaping educational outcomes for kids. We now have over 40 years of research.

And in this course, we will look at some of the fundamental research and frameworks in family engagement, or what I like to call the chestnuts of the field. One person’s work that had a powerful influence on the field is that of the noted developmental psychologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner, one of the founders of Head Start.

He believed that teachers and families are not the only people who shape children’s experiences. Other systems and interactions also impact them. He pushed us to think about everything as ecology, the way that the various stakeholders’ systems and structures all work together to impact the child’s well-being.

When many of us think about family engagement, thanks to Dr. Bronfenbrenner’s work, we try to situate it in a system’s context. Situating family engagement as a part of a systemic approach to school reform lead me, with my colleague, to write A New Wave of Evidence, a book that summarized the state of family engagement research at the start of the millennium.

In addition, there is more recent research that talks about family and engagement as part of a system’s dynamic. The Chicago Consortium on School Research looked at the five essential supports needed to have a successful learning environment. They found that without strong family and community engagement, schools would not improve even if the other four supports were in place.

Last but not least, the work of Kathy Hoover-Dempsey and Howard Sandler has influenced many of us. Their research starts to unpack what we need to know about why and how families are engaged in their children’s education.

We hope, with this course, to help you think about the importance of these foundational works in your practice.

Key Studies on Family Engagement

An ecological perspective, Urie Bronfenbrenner heavily influence me, and I think it’s important if we’re going to understand and affect kids’ development and education success, that we bring that frame.

Well, when you define family engagement, and you talked about there’s the influence of the family, but then of the adults connecting and the organizations

I could clearly hear that frame come through. So within– exactly. I think within that frame, a second one is the work of Mario Luis Small. And he’s a preeminent researcher of social networks. And he said the role of organizations within this area is understudies. So he chose as his research early childhood programs in New York City– Head Start, some state-funded and some private– early childhood programs, and did a very intensive mixed-method study looking at the role of those early childhood programs in creating and supporting social networks amongst the parents. His book is called Unanticipated Gains. I highly recommend it to everybody.

So someone found that organizations played a key role in connecting parents to each other. So in a number of these centers, they had volunteer activities for parents. And the expectation was you would come.

It was that set of things that then connected parents to each other. So it’s like, you and I are in the same childcare center. And we meet. Gosh, we have some things in common, and we get to know each other. And then I’ve got a problem getting my kid there, but you live five blocks away, and you take the same route, and whatever, could you pick up my kid?


So he documented the ways in which parents, these networks, the organization helped shape and form a network that then began to exchange things with each other. Then he connected that set of findings to the fragile family study out of Princeton, and showed that when families have this set of things that these centers were helping to provide, that family health and well-being increased.

That person, by the way, then followed up in an intervention within Head Start. So his notion is, parents have agency. We can do things that enable them to help each other. And we need to be doing that. I think the third one, and it’s not a study, per se, is the work that’s coming out by a Harvard trained– or actually, I think it’s Princeton trained, Ph.D., at least– behavioral economist who was on the cover of Harvard Magazine this summer.

I think his name is Mullainathan. I’ll get you the citation for it. And what he’s looking at is the effects of poverty. As a behavioral economist, he’s studying poverty, and has done a series of really interesting experiments on how poverty decreases bandwidth.

You’re so struggling to survive that you don’t have the capacity. And I think that has implications for family engagement. And I’ll mention a direct connection to that in a minute.

But what I also like about this gentleman’s work is that he flips it and says we have not to blame people but create circumstances that allow them to do what they want to do, which is the right thing.

The example he gives is of people highly stressed, economically disadvantaged people, in a job training program. And some of them are rigid. And you have to do, let’s say, 10 of them. And I missed the second one, so therefore I have to drop out because I was unable to be there at eight o’clock on the second of the 10, so I’m in trouble.

OK, flip it, and make it something you could do, for example, online. And as long as you complete it and pass the test, it’s OK. So you create a context, or you create a circumstance that allows people to do what they need to do.

And he gives some other examples in the article. So I think about family engagement the same way.

Let’s try to design something that enables people to do what they would like to be able to do. That’s shared responsibility.

Additional Resources

  1. Mattingly, D. J., R. Prislin, T. L. Mckenzie, J. L. Rodriguez, and B. Kayzar. “Evaluating Evaluations: The Case of Parent Involvement Programs.” Review of Educational Research 72, no. 4 (Winter 2002): 549-76.
  2. Jeynes, William H. “A Meta-Analysis: The Effects of Parental Involvement on Minority Children’s Academic Achievement.” Education and Urban Society 35, no. 2 (February 2003): 202-18.
  3. Hill, Nancy E. “Disentangling Ethnicity, Socioeconomic Status and Parenting: Interactions, Influences and Meaning.” Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies 1, no. 1 (2006): 114-24.
  4. Bryk, Anthony and Schneider, Barbara. Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002.
  5. Viadero, Debra. “Race Report’s Influence Felt 40 Years Later.” Education Week 25, no. 41 (June 20, 2006): 21-24.
  6. Small, Mario Luis. Unanticipated Gains: Origins of Network Inequality in Everyday Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  7. Fragile Families Homepage. “http://www.fragilefamilies.princeton.edu/.”
  8. “The Science of Scarcity: A Behavioral Economist’s Fresh Perspectives on Poverty.” Harvard Magazine. May/June 2015.
  9. Neuman, Susan B., and Donna C. Celano. “Worlds Apart: One City, Two Libraries, and Ten Years of Watching Inequality Grow.” American Educator, Fall 2012, 13-23.
  10. Bronfenbrenner, Urie. The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.
  11. Eryk, Anthony S. The Brookline Early Education Project: Resolving Methodological Issues in Evaluating an Early Childhood Education Program Model. Presentation. Annual Meeting of the National Council on Measurement in Education. April 1974. 1-19.

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