How do you feel about parents of your students? In the May 2011 issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership, Larry Ferlazzo discusses parent “Involvement or Engagement?” He claims that often how a teacher feels about parents often falls into one of four categories:
- We should contact them when there is a problem,
- it’s good when they don’t “bother” us,
- we need them to raise money, and
- we can blame them for all kinds of things we’re not happy about.
He goes on to state that school-family connections founded on the principles of improved relationships, listening, welcoming, and shared decision making can have multiple benefits for the students. Defining involvement as “to enfold or envelope” and engagement as “to come together and interlock,” Larry argues for parent engagement which requires a school “lead[ing] with its ears—listening to what parents think, dream, and worry about.” On the other hand, a school that chooses parent involvement usually “leads with its mouth—identifying projects, needs, and goals and then telling parents how they can contribute.”
Scores of staff from the high school Larry is associated with in California, for example, visit the homes of all incoming Freshmen students during the summer to listen to parents so together they can begin to build the foundation for beneficial school-family relationships: “Our primary goal is to listen to the wisdom that parents have gained in more than 14 years of raising their children. We want to learn about their hopes and dreams for their children and discuss how the school can work with them to make those dreams a reality.”
The outgrowth of these listening-based relationships at Larry’s high school have included an online family literacy project and a Parent University. Larry, however, expands the notion of parent engagement by comparing it to community organizing offering examples of schools that have partnered with parent to achieve local community reform. Larry cites the Annenberg Institute for School Reform’s documentation of the positive impact of these efforts on “students, schools, families, and neighborhoods.”
The temptation to settle for parent involvement rather than engagement, Larry point out, seems reasonable because it is usually easier to implement and has tangible results. However, his analysis of why involvement leads to negative consequences is instructive and worth reading to support the advocacy for parent engagement as the only sensible choice for schools that want to have a significant life-long positive impact on students.
Getting at the crux of the issues of power sharing versus empowering, Larry concludes:
Some people see power as a finite pie: If you get more, that means I have less. The vision of family engagement described here, however, views power in a different way. As families move from being school clients or volunteers to being leaders in education improvement efforts, they gain more power. As a result, the whole pie gets bigger, and more possibilities are created.