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  Emerging Issues in School, Family, & Community Connections
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Exective Summary

This research synthesis is the first in a series that will examine key issues in the field of family and community connections with schools. The issues highlighted in this synthesis represent critical areas of work in family and community connections with schools where clarification, agreement, and further development are needed, as well as promising new directions that are emerging. By continuing to strengthen the research in the field we can help ensure that schools, families, and communities can come together to produce positive outcomes. After reviewing and examining a body of literature that included more than 160 publications, four key issues emerged.

Issue 1 — Clarifying the Concept of Family and Community Connections with Schools

The field of family and community connections with schools does not have consistent agreement on what is meant by the terms “connections,” “parent involvement,” and “community involvement.” The need to clarify these concepts comes not from a desire for universally acceptable, all-encompassing definitions, but from a need to be clear in our language so that researchers and practitioners can more effectively implement and measure the impacts of these connections.

Current research reveals that there are many different activities that connect families and schools. Often these activities are quite different from each other, yet they are lumped together as “parent involvement” or “school-family connections.” Some researchers emphasize activities that take place at the school, such as parent attendance at school events and participation in parent-teacher organizations (PTOs). Others include activities that take place in the home, such as parental homework help and discussions about school issues between parents and children. Still others include abstract concepts as well as actual involvement behaviors in their definition, such as parent aspirations for a child’s education.

These activities have very different impacts on students, schools, families, and communities. The variety of definitions make it difficult to compare studies and models of parent involvement to one another. They also make the analysis of the findings of multiple studies a challenge. For practitioners, these multiple definitions may lead to difficulties in making judgments about what kinds of activities to implement, how to implement them, and what results to expect from them.

Similarly, many different kinds of activities fall under the heading of “community connections with schools.” One researcher may define a school-community connection as a formal partnership between the school and another local organization. Another may highlight learning opportunities for students that take them out of the classroom and into the community for real-life experiences. Still other researchers may look at the role of the school in the larger community—as a community center or a community institution that can play a role in community development efforts. There is also variation in the very way the term “community” is defined.

The challenge of defining school-community connections in a comprehensive way has similar consequences to the challenge of defining the full range of school-family connections. The multiple definitions make it difficult to compare studies with one another and to synthesize the results across studies. Multiple definitions also create challenges for practitioners as they attempt to select, implement, and evaluate different connection activities.

In addition to the general problem of multiple and overlapping definitions, two important factors have affected how family and community connections are currently defined in research and practice. First, there are the differences in perceptions of appropriate roles of family and community members in connections with schools. Second, there has been an emphasis on school-centered definitions of family and community involvement. Family and community involvement frequently means helping reach goals defined by the schools (administrators and teachers) that reflect only school values and priorities. There is a need for the field to consider expanded definitions that move beyond narrow definitions of family and community involvement to include theories, concepts, and ideas from outside the field of education, as well as culturally appropriate definitions and family centered practices. Read more.

Issue 2 — Measuring the Outcomes of Family and Community Connections with Schools

Parent and community connections have been measured inconsistently across studies and research has not yet captured the full picture of these connections and their results. There is a need to be precise in how we are measuring outcomes, in order to avoid faulty generalizations and conclusions and to clarify the sometimes conflicting evidence about the impact of connections.

The field must continue to explore new methods for capturing the processes and outcomes of these complex interactions between schools, families, and communities.

We must also capture the different outcomes of the connections for the various stakeholders—students, parents, schools, and communities—to gain a full picture of the impact of the connections. It is evident that connections can have a broad array of outcomes, ranging from increased student achievement and improved school climate to enhanced civic capacity for a variety of stakeholders. The multifaceted results of these connections lead to measurement challenges for both researchers studying the connections and practitioners evaluating the impact of their efforts.

While there is evidence that family and community connections can result in positive outcomes for all stakeholders, we must continue to clarify the relationships between the different kinds of connections and the outcomes they produce. A redefinition of terms and rethinking of research tools in order to measure the effects of all types of family and community connections with schools is needed to help the field progress. There is also a need to better understand and document how various school, family, and community connections create conditions that support a variety of results. Read more.

Issue 3 — Advancing the Research Base for Family and Community Connections with Schools

Research about the process and effects of family and community connections with schools is evolving and does not yet provide clear directions for practitioners. There is a critical need to take the body of research we have and build theory that can propel us into the next stage of research. Family and community connections frameworks can help research test the relationship between different components of the concept of family and community connections with schools, address the problem of unclear and overlapping definitions of the concept, and gain greater understanding of the predictors and impacts of these connections.

In our review, we also observed that researchers face numerous methodological challenges, including choice of design, sampling, measurement, and internal/external validity. New developments in research design and methodology that better link quantitative and qualitative research and more and improved conceptual models can move the field toward a stronger research base. Funding allocations to applied educational research and program evaluations must increase, a new level of partnership must be forged between practitioners and researchers to enable the use of experimental procedures in service
settings, and program staff concerns related to random assignment and potentially intrusive data collection procedures must be addressed. Read more.

Issue 4 — Critical Areas for Research in Family and Community Connections with Schools

Our review of the literature revealed a number of critical research areas that surfaced repeatedly. Within each of the critical areas listed here, both promising directions and research needs are discussed. These areas are:

  • Forging connections with families from culturally diverse backgrounds

  • Connecting families with schools in homework help

  • Connecting school, family, and community for effective school reform

  • Connecting school, family, and community through developmental approaches and integrated service delivery

  • Connecting school, family, and community to support student transitions throughout the education system

  • Developing process-based approaches to make connections

  • Preparing educators and other school personnel to make connections between schools, families, and communities

Our charge as a field is to come together to address the issues highlighted in this document– to clarify the concept and outcomes of family and community connections with schools and to improve the quantity and quality of the research base available. In so doing, we will better understand these connections and create the knowledge needed to realize the potential of family, school, and community connections for student learning and students’ lives. Read more.

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