Collaborating to transform and improve education systems:A playbook for family-school engagement
This playbook on family-school collaboration makes the case for why family engagement is essential for education systems transformation and why families and schools must have a shared understanding of what a good quality education looks like. By providing evidence-based strategies from around the world and other hands-on tools that school leaders and partners can adopt and use in their local contexts, it aims to help leapfrog education inequality so that all young people can have a 21st-century education.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put the topic of families and schools working together to educate children at the center of virtually every country’s education debate. Teachers around the world report developing creative ways of engaging with parents to help their students learn at home, including strategies they would like to continue even after pandemic is over (Teach for All, 2020; Teach for Pakistan, 2020). In turn, parents—whom we define as any family members or guardians who are the primary caregivers (see Box 1 for important terms defined)—have responded to these new remote-learning experiences and new forms of communication. Their increased expectations of deeper engagement with schools are reflected in representative surveys of parents across Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and the United States—all pointing to this rising demand from families for new approaches to working with schools (Learning Heroes, 2020; Molina et al., 2020).
Many leaders of schools and school systems across the world had an “aha” moment when, after pivoting to new outreach and communication mechanisms, they saw major jumps in the level of engagement of families, especially among those who had been previously deemed hard to reach. From Argentina to India to the United States, leaders realized that hard-to-reach families were not opposed to engaging with schools; it was just that the schools’ approaches to engagement were getting in the way. For example, when the government of Himachal Pradesh, a state of almost 7 million people in India, pivoted from asking parents to come to schools for meetings to finding multiple ways for schools to come to parents—through text messages, WhatsApp groups, and Facebook posts—engagement levels jumped from 20 percent to 80 percent in two months (Brookings Institution, 2021).
The four goals
This new focus on ways to connect families with schools presents an opportunity to markedly shift broader approaches, and the overall vision, for long-term collaboration. This playbook shows that family-school engagement—namely the collaboration between the multiple actors, from parents and community members to teachers and school leaders—has an important role to play in improving and transforming education systems to achieve four main goals (Figure 1):
Playbook terms defined
- Parent and family: In this playbook, “parent” is shorthand for any family member, caregiver, or guardian who cares for children and youth. We rely most heavily on the term “family” to capture the varied contexts in which children live and are cared for, including extended family members—from grandparents to aunts, uncles, or cousins—who play leading roles in caregiving. The playbook uses the terms “parent” and “family” interchangeably.
- Teacher: The playbook uses “teacher” instead of “educator” to distinguish between the education professional (whose vocation is to instruct and guide children in school) and parents (who are their child’s first educators, helping them develop and learn from birth on).
- Involvement versus engagement: We find Ferlazzo’s distinction between family “involvement” and “engagement” helpful and use the terms accordingly. “A school striving for family involvement often leads with its mouth—identifying projects, needs, and goals and then telling parents how they can contribute.” In contrast, “a school striving for parent engagement leads with its ears—listening to what parents think, dream, and worry about. The goal of family engagement is not to serve clients but to gain partners” (Ferlazzo, 2011, p. 12).
- Family-school engagement: This playbook uses the term “family-school engagement” instead of the more common “family engagement” not only to express the dual nature of the engagement but also to highlight the fact that either side can, and does, initiate the engagement process.
- Alignment and the alignment gap: When families and schools share the same vision of the purpose of school, they are aligned in their beliefs and values, and this coherence is a powerful driver of education system transformation. An “alignment gap” exists when families and schools either do not share or perceive that they do not share the same views on the purpose of school and therefore what makes for a quality education for their children and communities.
- Schools and education systems: “School” denotes children’s structured process of teaching and learning regardless of location (whether a school building, outdoors, a library, a museum, or home). “Education systems” comprise schools but also frequently include a range of actors in the community (such as parks, employers, or nonprofit programs) that can work with schools to provide an ecosystem of learning opportunities. Education systems can have different levels of jurisdiction (district, state, or national) that denote their limits of authority. Although governments in every country bear the responsibility for ensuring that all children, especially from marginalized communities, can access a quality education, this playbook also refers to nongovernmental school networks (for example, a private school chain or a nonprofit network) as jurisdictions.
- System improvement: Certain efforts maximize how a system delivers education against the existing vision and set of outcomes. They aim to achieve the first two goals defined in this playbook: (a) improve student attendance and completion, and (b) improve student learning and development.
- System transformation: Other efforts broaden engagement to redefine the purpose of an education system, hence shifting the beliefs and mindsets that guide it along with the operations that deliver on that vision. They aim to achieve the second two goals defined in this playbook: (a) redefine the purpose of school for students, and (b) redefine the purpose of school for society.
Improving education systems
Robust evidence shows that family-school engagement can significantly improve how systems serve their students, especially those who have been poorly served. Studies that primarily assess school improvement have looked at students’ educational outcomes as measured by attendance; completion; and achievement on literacy, numeracy, and other regularly assessed competencies. We classify these efforts as system “improvement” because they improve how the system delivers education against an established set of outcomes rather than shifting the overall vision of the system’s purpose. Several such studies find that family-school engagement, when implemented effectively, not only boosts student outcomes but also can be a highly cost-effective investment.
Schools with strong family engagement are 10 times more likely to improve student learning outcomes. In one longitudinal study across 200 public elementary schools in Chicago (Bryk, 2010), researchers identified five key supports that together determined whether schools could substantially improve students’ reading and math scores: school leadership, family and community engagement, education personnel capacity, school learning climate, and instructional guidance. Crucially, schools improved most when all five supports were present. A sustained weakness in even one of these elements led schools to stagnate, showing little improvement.
The important role family-school engagement plays in improving students’ achievement is also broadly supported by other research, including a meta-analysis of 52 studies that found that engaging parents in their children’s schooling leads to improved grades for students in their classes and on standardized tests (Jeynes, 2007).
Communicating with families can be one of the most highly cost-effective approaches. Robust family engagement, as a core pillar of improving schools, certainly requires investment to shift mindsets and behaviors, but one particular component of this effort—direct communication with families—is a highly cost-effective way of improving student attendance and learning outcomes. A global study comparing evaluations of different types of education interventions (such as teacher training, materials provision, scholarships) across 46 low- and middle-income countries found sharing information about education to be at the top of the list in terms of cost-effectiveness (Angrist et al., 2020). The study showed that a particular approach to communicating information is what improves student outcomes at scale, namely context-specific information about the benefits, costs, and quality of local schooling from a messenger that families and students trust. For example, data that help families and their children to better assess the specific benefits of staying and doing well in school (like higher earnings and better health) as well as to better identify resources that could help students participate in higher education and understand the quality of schooling options available to them. In fact, targeted information campaigns about the benefits of education for students can deliver the equivalent of three additional years of high-quality education for a low per student cost.
The Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel identified communicating with families in this manner, including through videos or parents’ meetings at school, as a “great buy” for education systems. For a modest investment, it can significantly improve student outcomes on important dimensions such as years of schooling and acquisition of literacy and numeracy skills across a large number of communities (Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel, 2020).
Transforming education systems
The increased attention to family-school engagement also provides an opportunity for a broader debate and dialogue on the overall purpose of school. Families not only have increased expectations for ongoing engagement but also, in many contexts, have had front-row seats inside the schooling process during the COVID-19 pandemic and have opinions on what a quality education should look like for their children.
These discussions on the purpose of school would, of course, include an examination of strategies to ensure that students are attending school and learning well there. But they would also allow parents and families and teachers and schools to take a step back and ask each other, “What are schools for? What role should they play in society? And what types of competencies and skills should schools help our children develop?”
We refer to this broader engagement on the guiding vision of education as system “transformation” work because it does not take the current education system outcomes as a given. Although the family engagement literature offers only a limited focus on engaging families with this goal in mind, the system transformation field offers substantial insight on the important role family-school engagement plays in this process—and what it takes to achieve this engagement.
Redefining the purpose of education—one of the most powerful levers for sustainably transforming systems—requires participation by the whole community. Systems of any kind—education, health, or justice—are made up of many elements, from the concrete and visible (like people and resources) to the abstract and invisible (like group priorities and culture). Scholars of system dynamics point to changing “deep structures,” which include the invisible elements of a system like values and beliefs, as one of the most effective ways to transform what systems do (Gersick, 1991; Heracleous & Barrett, 2001). They argue that frequently, when leaders seek to change the concrete or visible elements of a system without changing the deep structures of beliefs and values that guide that system, the results amount to tinkering around the edges. Conversely, a shift in the beliefs and values that guide a system drives changes across the visible and invisible elements alike (Meadows, 2008; Munro et al., 2002).
In this way, aligning around a shared vision of the purpose of school is a powerful way for schools and families to shape the deep structures guiding how schools operate. For example, in communities where families or teachers or students have different beliefs about what school is for and hence what they should do, schools are likely to struggle, being pulled in multiple directions or experiencing considerable headwinds to any changes that are made. In contrast, communities with a well-aligned vision of the purpose of school can move forward constructively, with families, teachers, students, and others all playing their respective roles in helping to advance this vision. This type of family-school engagement has the added benefit of helping sustain a vision of quality schooling across multiple political cycles. An Achilles’ heel of education system change is the short tenure of leaders. In Latin America, for example, most education ministers are only in office for an average of two to three years, which frequently means a revolving door of priorities guiding the system (Fiszbein & Saccucci, 2016).
Deep dialogue with families and schools is needed to unlock systemwide transformational processes. One study examined the greatest barriers to and enablers of systemwide change, tracking reform journeys across three countries: Canada, Finland, and Portugal (Barton, 2021). In all three cases, the primary barrier was a misalignment between members of the community—from education leaders to teachers to families—on their beliefs and values about school. They lacked a shared sense of “this is what school is about.” In all three countries, a process of deep and respectful dialogue, whereby families and schools along with others had equal places at the table, was crucial for unlocking the system transformation process. The study concludes that collectively defining and aligning the purpose of education, and the values that drive it, are among the essential enablers of systemwide transformation. This study reaffirms prior findings from U.S.-based research: education reforms are only successful when, among other things, they are consistent with stakeholders’ values, in other words when they are aligned to students, parents, and teachers’ beliefs about education (Cohen and Mehta, 2017).
A changing world
The COVID-19 pandemic has not been the first and will not be the last external force driving a need to change education systems. Strategies for families and communities to work together across all four goals of system improvement or transformation are needed now, particularly to address the growing inequality that has emerged from the pandemic. But they will also be needed in the future to navigate the skills needed for a rapidly changing world.
There is a growing consensus among education experts and learning scientists that education systems must focus more heavily on ensuring that students develop a wide range of competencies—from robust academic knowledge, to “learning how to learn,” to collaborative problem solving. Many also agree that to develop this breadth of skills and deliver a holistic education, teaching and learning experiences must shift to include more experiential, playful, real-world application of academic learning (Winthrop et al., 2018). The forces that are already pushing education systems in this direction are set to accelerate over the coming decades. They include the advent of new technologies, the disruption of the world of work through automation of routine manual and cognitive skills, and the seriousness of complex social and environmental crises.
Although we subscribe to the argument that the fast pace of change requires education systems to improve and transform toward a more holistic vision of education and have written extensively on this before, we recognize that when it comes to family-school engagement, prescribing a vision undercuts the very power of the engagement process. For example, the deep dialogue needed to redefine the purpose of schools can only occur if parents and families and teachers and schools have an equal voice, whereby each brings their respective expertise to the table, and there is a level of trust that allows for the cocreation of a shared vision. We also realize that every context is different and together families, education professionals, students, and other stakeholders should be the ones to decide what a quality education looks like for them given their culture, history, aspirations, and community realities.
This is why this playbook focuses on offering ways of understanding the full landscape of family-school engagement strategies so that communities may learn from each other but ultimately with the goal of adapting and making strategies relevant in their own contexts. It is also why, to complement this landscape of strategies, we have provided an in-depth look at one of the system transformation goals: “redefine the purpose of school for students.” Current family-school engagement work has focused much less energy and attention on transforming education systems than on improving them, and deepening the field’s understanding of how to approach this goal is one way of addressing this gap.
This playbook includes six main components:
- Overview: We describe the four goals for family-school engagement (two goals for improving how systems serve students and two goals for transforming how systems are envisioned). The section provides context for family-school engagement in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and explains who should use the playbook.
- Evolution: This section discusses the evolving nature of family-school engagement. Historically, schools were never designed to engage families in the education of their children and we discuss the three main barriers facing family-school engagement today. We highlight the evolving story of good practice in family-school engagement from episodic involvement to continuous engagement.
- Strategy landscape: This section provides an overview of the good practice strategies that stakeholders can use to improve family-school engagement. It is a typology, or “map,” for understanding the breadth of family-school engagement approaches for achieving each of the four goals and highlights findings from our review of over 500 strategies.
- Strategy Finder: This interactive database features more than 60 strategies from around the world that bring the strategy landscape to life.
- Aligning beliefs: This section provides an in-depth look at the third goal of family-school engagement: redefine the purpose of school for students. It provides a framework for understanding how family-school engagement can support system transformation and our insights from surveying close to 25,000 parents and more than 6,000 teachers about their education beliefs. We conducted these surveys together with our Family Engagement in Education Network (FEEN) across 10 countries and one global private school chain.
- Conversation Starter tools: This section continues the in-depth look at redefining the purpose of school for students by sharing our “Conversation Starter” tools. These tools will help anyone begin exploring how to help families and schools reach a shared understanding of what a good-quality education looks like.
Whom is this playbook for?
This playbook is for anyone interested in helping families and schools work better together to improve or transform how education is delivered or what goals it achieves. Given the power held by education system leaders and school heads, this playbook is particularly focused on supporting them in understanding the why, what, and how of working jointly with families to improve or transform schools (as further described in Box 2, “Who should use this playbook?”).
How was the playbook developed?
The playbook incorporates input from dozens of organizations and thousands of individuals around the world as well as extensive strategy analysis and research, as follows:
Who should use this playbook?
We hope this playbook is particularly useful for school system leaders, teacher organizations, civil society partners, and funders. We also hope the many parent organizations around the world, whose work we lift up and highlight, will find this playbook helpful to their ongoing work. The list below is certainly not exhaustive, and if you find yourself outside of one of these groups, we encourage you to read on.
Education decision makers
- Jurisdiction leaders and administrators. At the broader systems level, the playbook can be especially relevant for jurisdiction leaders and administrators at the district, state, and national levels, including jurisdiction-level governing boards, private sector school networks, and education leaders with oversight of key functions such as strategic planning, teacher training, and community engagement.
- School leaders and leadership teams. At the school level, the playbook is designed for school leaders, principals, and their executive leadership teams, including staff with responsibilities over community engagement and student success, as well as any related school-level governing boards.
- Leadership training programs. In addition, the playbook can also be useful for trainers of school leaders, such as universities. We hope the playbook can inspire content for curricula around family engagement and systems transformation.
- Teacher networks. Teacher unions, networks, and organizations will also find this playbook useful, especially in their work on strategy, policy, and advocacy. Although the playbook is not designed for individual teachers, much of its content addresses topics that teachers regularly discuss and that figure in their concerns.
- Teacher training programs. In addition, the playbook can also be useful for trainers of teachers, such as universities. We hope it can inspire content for curricula around family engagement and systems transformation.
- School partners. In addition to systems-level administrators and school-level leaders, the playbook is useful for the many partners of schools. This includes NGOs, including those that support delivery of education to children; private sector organizations, such as for-profit education companies; and funders, including bilateral and multilateral agencies and philanthropic foundations.
- Parent organizations. We also designed the playbook for parent organizations—groups of parents that have organized themselves to provide input into school and community-level issues, such as curricula, school infrastructure, and public safety. These groups are well placed to advocate for strong family-school relationships, and we hope the playbook will inspire learning from the other parent organizations featured in the Strategy Finder.
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This playbook was co-authored by Rebecca Winthrop, Adam Barton, Mahsa Ershadi, and Lauren Ziegler from the Center for Universal Education (CUE) at Brookings. Rebecca Winthrop is the primary investigator, and the other co-authors are listed alphabetically given their equal contribution to the work.
The examples in the Strategy Finder were co-authored by Rebecca Winthrop, Adam Barton, Rachel Clayton, Steve Hahn, Maxwell Lieblich, Sophie Partington, and Lauren Ziegler.
This playbook was developed over a two-year period, with input from a number of collaborators, whose help was invaluable.
First and foremost, CUE would like to acknowledge the numerous inputs from the members of its Family Engagement in Education Network (FEEN), a group of education decisionmakers representing public education jurisdictions, private school networks, and nonprofit, parent, and funder organizations from countries around the world. FEEN members have shown their commitment to building ever stronger family-school partnerships, even during what have been the most challenging school years in recent memory. Members took time out of their schedules to attend regular virtual meetings, help co-create the vision guiding the project (including selecting the name of the network), review and adapt survey drafts, and connect us to their communities so we could conduct surveys and focus groups with parents and teacher across their jurisdictions. They provided documentation of family engagement strategies within their organizations, made time for follow-up interviews with CUE, and provided thoughtful input into early drafts of the playbook. CUE is forever grateful for the commitment, comradery, and wisdom of the network members, whose contributions have helped ensure the playbook reflects the lived experiences from numerous contexts around the world. We are also deeply indebted to the thousands of parents and teachers who across each FEEN jurisdiction took the time away from their busy lives talk to us and answer our surveys.
FEEN has grown since its inception and currently represents 49 organizations from 12 countries and one global private school chain with schools in 29 countries. The members are:
Aliquippa School District, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Allegheny Intermediate Unit, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Association of Independent Schools of South Australia
Avonworth School District, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Brentwood Borough School District, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Buenos Aires Ministry of Education, Argentina
Butler School District, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Cajon Valley Union School District, California, U.S.
Chartiers Valley School District, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Doncaster Council, UK
Duquesne School District, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Fort Cherry School District, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Ghana Education Service, Ghana
Hampton Township School District, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Himachal Pradesh Department of Education, India
Hopewell School District, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Inter-American Development Bank
Itau Social Foundation, Brazil
Keystone Oaks School District, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Khed Taluka District, Maharashtra, India
Leadership for Equity, Maharashtra, India
LeapEd Services, Malaysia
Learning Creates Australia
Lively Minds, Ghana
Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, Indiana, U.S.
Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, India
Ministry of Education, Colombia
Nashik District, Maharashtra, India
Networks of Inquiry and Indigenous Education, Canada
New Brighton School District, Pennsylvania, U.S.
New Castle School District, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Nord Anglia Education
Northgate School District, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Pune Municipal Corporation, Maharashtra, India
Right to Play, Ghana
Samagra, Himachal Pradesh, India
School District 8 Kootenay Lake, British Columbia, Canada
School District 23 Central Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada
School District 37 Delta, British Columbia, Canada
School District 38 Richmond, British Columbia, Canada
School District 39 Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
School District 48 Sea to Sky, British Columbia, Canada
South Fayette School District, Pennsylvania, U.S.
The Grable Foundation, U.S.
Transformative Educational Leadership Program, Canada
Western Beaver School District, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Western Cape Department of Education, South Africa
Young 1ove, Botswana
We are also deeply grateful to our colleagues who reviewed our playbook offering incisive and important feedback, suggestions, and critiques. Our final draft is measurably improved thanks to all of them taking time, often during weekends and holidays, to provide us with their feedback. Thank you to:
John Bangs, Madhukar Banuri, Alex Beard, Eyal Bergman, Jean-Marc Bernard, Sanaya Bharucha, Margaret Caspe, Yu-Ling Cheng, Jane Gaskell, Crystal Green, Judy Halbert, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Linda Kaser, Linda Krynski, Karen Mapp, Brad Olsen, Carolina Piñeros, Tom Ralston, Keri Rodrigues, Urvashi Sahni, Eszter Salamon, Michael Serban, and Heather Weiss.
In addition to the FEEN and peer reviewers, CUE conducted consultations and interviews with a number of stakeholders who provided thorough and thoughtful input over the years into the development of the research, the playbook, and the examples featured in the Strategy Finder. We are especially grateful to:
Akwasi Addae-Boahene, Yaw Osei Adutwum, Carla Aerts, Kike Agunbiade, Carolyne Albert-Garvey, Manos Antoninis, Anna Arsenault, Orazio Attanasio, Patrick Awuah Jr., Chandrika Bahadur, Rukmini Banerji, Peter Barendse, Alex Beard, Amanda Beatty, Gregg Behr, Luis Benveniste, Sanaya Bharucha, Elisa Bonilla Rius, Francisco Cabrera-Hernández, Paul Carter, Jane Chadsey, Mahnaz Charania, Su-Hui Chen, Yu-Ling Cheng, Elizabeth Chu, Samantha Cohen, Larry Corio, Richard Culatta, Laura Ann Currie, Tim Daly, Emma Davidson, Susan Doherty, Shani Dowell, Sarah Dryden-Peterson, Cindy Duenas, David Edwards, Annabelle Eliashiv, Joyce L. Epstein, Jelmer Evers, Beverley Ferguson, Larry Fondation, Kwarteng Frimpong, Nicole Baker Fulgham, Howard Gardner, Elizabeth Germana, Caireen Goddard, L. Michael Golden, Jim Gray, Crystal Green, Betheny Gross, Azeez Gupta, Kaya Henderson, Ed Hidalgo, Paul Hill, Michael B. Horn, Bibb Hubbard, Gowri Ishwaran, Maysa Jalbout, William Jeynes, Jonene Johnson, Riaz Kamlani, Utsav Kheria, Annie Kidder, Jim Knight, Wendy Kopp, Keith Krueger, Sonya Krutikova, Linda Krynski, Asep Kurniawan, Bobbi Kurshan, Robin Lake, Eric Lavin, Lasse Leponiemi, Keith Lewin, Sue Grant Lewis, Rose Luckin, Anthony Mackay, Namya Mahajan, Karen Mapp, Eileen McGivney, Hugh McLean, Bharat Mediratta, David Miyashiro, Alia An Nadhiva, Rakhi Nair, David Nitkin, Essie North, Hekia Parata, David Park, Shuvajit Payne, Chris Petrie, Marco Petruzzi, Vicki Phillips, Christopher Pommerening, Vikas Pota, Andy Puttock, Harry Quilter-Pinner, Bharath Ramaiah, Dominic Randolph, Niken Rarasati, Fernando Reimers, Shinta Revina, Karen Robertson, Richard Rowe, Jaime Saavedra, Suman Sachdeva, Siddhant Sachdeva, Urvashi Sahni, Eszter Salamon, Madalo Samati, Lucia Cristina Cortez de Barros Santos Santos, Dina Wintyas Saputri, Mimi Schaub, Andreas Schleicher, Jon Schnur, Marie Schwartz, Manju Shami, Nasrulla Shariff, Amit Kumar Sharma, Jim Shelton, Mark Sherringham, Manish Sisodia, Sandy Speicher, Michael Staton, Michael Stevenson, Samyukta Subramanian, Sudarno Sumarto, Vishal Sunil, Daniel Suryadarma, Fred Swaniker, Nicola Sykes, Eloise Tan, Sean Thibault, Jean Tower, Mike Town, Florischa Ayu Tresnatri, Jon Valant, Elyse Watkins, Heather Weiss, Karen Wespieser, Jeff Wetzler, Donna Williamson, Sharon Wolf, Michael Yogman, Kelly Young, and Gabriel Sánchez Zinny.
We are also grateful for the many individuals at CUE who helped make the playbook come to life in various ways, including: Eric Abalahin, Jeannine Ajello, Jessica Alongi, Nawal Atallah, Sara Coffey, Rachel Clayton, Porter Crumpton, Steve Hahn, Grace Harrington, Justine Hufford, Abigail Kaunda, Maxwell Lieblich, Shavanthi Mendis, Aki Nemoto, Sophie Partington, Katherine Portnoy, and Esther Rosen. In addition, we would like to acknowledge copy editing services from Mary Anderson, Jessica Federle, and Donna Polydoros and design services from Marian Licheri, Damian Licheri, Andreina Anzola, and Rogmy Armas.
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