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Family-School Partnerships for the 21st Century

Grassroots learning contributes to school success

M Price-Mitchell
Parents hold ParentNet meeting at The Overlake School in Redmond WA to talk about being better parents
M Price-Mitchell

On the surface, parent involvement in education seems uncontroversial. If you are a parent or educator, you most likely believe parent-teacher conferences are important, a good homework environment is essential, and teaching respect and discipline at home is likely to affect student learning. But there is more to parent involvement than meets the eye - and the topic can stir fierce debate among educators and scholars.

Years of academic studies have shown that parent involvement is linked to children's academic, social, and emotional development. Building parent-school partnerships is one strategy that is used worldwide for improving student success. Yet despite extensive research, there are differing opinions on what makes a healthy partnership and how parent-teacher-student relationships must evolve to meet the demands of 21st century learners. Ironically, at a time when we understand that learning is dependent on an interconnected system of student support, the major trend in U.S. education reform is to blame teachers for poor student performance rather than build partnerships that help kids succeed. But today's parents and teachers are not waiting for change to trickle down; they are quietly and respectfully creating the types of partnerships that benefit kids.

Brief History of Parent Involvement

When we look at schools historically, their structure and organization goes back to the Industrial Revolution when they were founded to resemble well-oiled machines. They were envisioned and created as closed, self-sufficient systems where parents had no roles.

Over a period of many years, parent involvement grew from programs that merely educated them to processes that enlisted parents in volunteering, fund raising, and school governance. But regardless of how parents were involved with schools, there were always unwritten rules of engagement. It wasn't until the 1970's that Ira Gordon spearheaded efforts to develop the "parent-as-teacher" role, helping increase children's academic performance and develop more positive home-school relationships.

Insisting that teachers must learn from parents as well as parents from teachers, Gordon pointed out that educators needed to develop new attitudes toward parents, including the ability to collaborate with them. This was a major shift in thinking for schools, a shift that has never been successfully achieved to this day. Why? Some believe the machine metaphor is so entrenched in our thinking about schools that it is difficult for them to embrace the idea of education as a collaborative partnership.

As a result of this kind of thinking, the past 30 years of research on parental involvement has mostly focused on specialized programs for parents rather than on how parents and schools collaborate to expand learning for everyone. It has particularly looked at how to improve outcomes of children from socioeconomically disadvantaged environments. Measured by improved student test scores, many programs have produced success. However, most programs are difficult to replicate from school to school.

Partnerships Based on Collaboration and Learning

Today's concept of family-school partnerships resonates with the ideas of Ira Gordon (1977), that parents and schools share equally valued roles in education. We must see parents as more than volunteers, they must be part of a school's learning community.

Instead of a closed, self-sufficient system, schools must see themselves as open systems that engage in learning at the boundaries between families and communities. Peter Senge (2000) said it well, "If I had one wish for all our institutions, and the institution called school in particular, it is that we dedicate ourselves to allowing them to be what they would naturally become, which is human communities, not machines. Living beings who continually ask the questions: Why am I here? What is going on in my world? How might I and we best contribute?"

When we think of schools as learning communities, parents and teachers have the capacity to shift the machine metaphor from the grassroots upward. This is the type of change than cannot be mandated from the top-down or through laws like No Child Left Behind. In fact, research shows that partnerships based on relationships, connectedness, and flexibility hold the keys to understanding how to increase student learning and motivation.

What does this paradigm shift mean to families and schools? It means no one is a single expert; we are all learners. We come together for the shared goal of educating the whole child. In many ways, we are what Etienne Wegner (2002) calls communities of practice, "groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their understanding and knowledge of this area by interacting on an ongoing basis." What brings families and schools together is a passion for children and education.

Research shows that parents and teachers build partnerships that help children succeed when they: 1) Engage in meaningful dialogue, 2) Show mutual respect, 3) Actively listen, 4) Collaborate, 5) Empathize, 6) Open themselves to learning, and 7) Involve the student. In other words, today's partnerships must embrace students as responsible collaborators in their own learning.

Today's parents are also forming partnerships with each other, learning from people who do not necessarily share similar views or parenting practices. Parent-led programs like ParentNet, use a communities of practice model to bring parents together with school liaisons to learn from each other. Discussions often spur ideas that generate innovation and positive change in local schools.

It is clear that family-school partnerships for the 21st century will be different than traditional ideas of parental involvement. That should come as no surprise to educators or parents who understand that innovation in a complex, globally-connected society requires collaboration, respect, and the capacity to critically think about the changing world in which we and our children live.


Epstein, J. L. (2011). School, family, and community partnerships: Preparing educators and improving schools (2nd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Westview Press.

Gordon, I. R. (1977). Parent education and parent involvement: Retrospect and prospect. Childhood Education, 54, 71-79.

Henderson, A. T., Mapp, K. L., Johnson, V. R., & Davies, D. (2007). Beyond the bake sale: The essential guide to family-school partnerships. New York: The New Press.

Price-Mitchell, M. (2009). Boundary dynamics: Implications for building parent-school partnerships. The School Community Journal, 19(2).

Senge, P. M. (2000). Systems change in education. Reflections, 1(3), 52-60.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. A., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.