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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 (Kohl et al., 2000). There is also a need to be precise in how we are currently measuring outcomes, in order to avoid faulty generalizations and conclusions and to clarify the sometimes conflicting evidence about the impact of connections. In order to advance, 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 various stakeholders in order to gain a full picture of the impact of the connections. Some of the outcomes are described below. The purpose of these summaries is to illustrate the multifaceted nature of outcomes to be captured through research and evaluation measurements.

Outcomes for Students

The outcomes described below demonstrate the range of results for students that may be measured and monitored in studies of school, family, and community connections.

  • Academic achievement
    Family and community connections with schools have shown evidence of an effect on student academic achievement (for example, Fan & Chen, 1999; Ho Sui-Chu & Willms, 1996; Luchuck, 1998; Keith & Keith, 1993). Recent studies by Shaver and Walls (1998); Faires et al. (2000); Quigley (2000); Chavkin, Gonzalez, and Rader (2000); and Izzo et al. (1999) all found specific positive impacts on reading and mathematics. Others, such as Bloome, Katz, Solsken, Willett, and Wilson-Keenan (2000) and Epstein, Simon, and Salinas (1997) have found effects on other subjects, such as language arts, literacy, art, science, and social studies.

  • Other achievement in school
    Research has demonstrated that family and community connections have also impacted attendance, aspirations for post-secondary education, enrollment in challenging high school curriculum, and successful transitions from special education to regular classes. In addition, research has documented that connections have reduced retention and dropout rates among students (Trusty, 1999; Miedel & Reynolds, 1999; Yonezawa, 2000).

  • Social functioning
    Students’ social functioning can be impacted by family and community connections in such areas as student behavior, motivation, social competence, intrinsic motivation, positive student-teacher and peer relationships, language, self-help, meaningful youth and adult connection/relationships, and strong peer and adult role models (Palenchar, Vondra & Wilson, 2001; Sanders, 1998).

  • Addressing barriers to learning
    Barriers to learning such as health and mental health problems can be alleviated as a result of family and community connections with schools (Center for Mental Health in Schools, 1999a; Newman, 1995; Wynn et al., 2000). Through connections, students and their families often have access to physical health services, social services, and basic subsistence services that they might not otherwise be able to access (Wynn et al.).

  • Creating networks of support
    Years of research (for example, Anderson, 1978; Bronfenbrenner, 1986; Sorin, 1990; Garbarino, 1992, all cited in Honig et al., 2001) have shown that social networks within and between neighborhoods can provide a web of support to parents and other adults that leads to greater learning opportunities for youth and children. Researchers investigating resilience in children (Bernard, 1990; Sampson, 1991; Werner, 1992; Blyth & Leffert, 1995, all cited in Honig et al.) have found that socially coherent communities and stable neighborhoods seem to be strongly correlated with positive development and learning outcomes for youth. In the resiliency research and in Kretzmann and McKnight’s (1993) work on assets and strength of neighborhood ties, it has been found that neighborhoods can extend the classroom and that peer groups function as powerful influences on youth development and academic engagement.

  • Creating new learning opportunities
    Several authors suggest that connections between schools and communities can provide new opportunities for students to learn in a variety of settings, such as church congregations, community organizations, and afterschool programs (Dryfoos, 2000; Honig et al., 2001; Sanders, 1998; Wynn et al., 2000). These connections can provide new role models and teachers to students and provide opportunities for building skills and leadership qualities that can support success in a variety of settings, including school. Additionally, school-community connections can lead to greater access to work-based learning and other career development opportunities (Hughes et al., 2001).

Outcomes for Schools

In addition to supporting the success of individual students, family and community connections with schools show impact on schools as organizations and on personnel working in schools. The following is a summary of some of the outcomes found in the literature reviewed. They demonstrate the range of school results that may be measured and monitored in studies of school, family, and community connections.

  • School reform efforts
    School reform efforts across the country have been influenced by parent and community involvement (Shirley, 1997; Desimone et al., 2000; Zetlin & MacLeod, 1995). In their 1997 book, Lewis & Henderson suggest that parents have played three key roles in reform efforts: as reform advocates, as full partners in reform efforts, and as participants in the reform. Harkavy (1998) suggests that universities have a key role to play in school reform as major institutions within the local neighborhood or community. He suggests that they can serve as both a powerful resource and as a catalyst for change, but must adapt themselves to the needs of the local community in order to be effective.

  • School climate
    A study of the CoZi model of school reform (a combination of James Comer’s development schools and Edward Zigler’s Schools of the 21st Century) also found that there were effects on the school as a result of family and community involvement in the reform effort, such as better school climate, and more open school culture (Desimone et al., 2000).

  • Access to resources
    Studies of partnerships between schools and professional institutions, such as businesses, universities and foundations, have found great benefits to schools in the form of increased access to resources and knowledge (Merchant, 1996). Wynn et al. (2000) found that these resources, including both small ones, such as telephone lines, copying machines or space, and more substantive ones, like computers, are highly valued by schools. In the majority of the connections studied by Wynn et al., schools also received human resources in the form of teachers, trainers for teachers, and management assistance.

  • Increased instructional capacity and curriculum development
    A review of several existing partnerships between universities and schools concluded that building instructional capacity was the greatest benefit to schools of developing these partnerships (Restine, 1996). The author cites the work of Darling-Hammond and McLaughlin (1995) that documents a trend toward forming professional communities between schools and universities that result in “contextualized theory and theoretically informed practice.” Also, community organizations can develop curriculum and work with school staff to integrate it into classroom lessons in subject areas including arts, civic education, and school-to-work. In many cases they also provide actual staff who teach students, such as artists and musicians. Another positive outcome for schools can occur as the community begins to serve as a site for “school work,” through service learning and student entrepreneurship activities. In these activities, students and educators engage in learning activities that are relevant to local issues and are meaningful to both the students and the community (Boethel, 2000; Lewis, 1999).

Outcomes for Families and Communities

In addition to supporting students and schools, family and community connections with schools can impact families and the community at large. Reports of improved outcomes for the family unit and the community as a whole are numerous. The following is a summary of some of the outcomes found in the literature reviewed. They demonstrate the range of family and community results that may be measured and monitored in studies of school, family, and community connections.

  • Changes in skills, knowledge, and beliefs
    Several studies documented that family attitudes toward education and their understanding of schools improved as a result of involvement (Bauch, 2000; Sanders, Epstein & Connors-Tadros, 1999). One study found that parenting styles can shift in positive ways as a result of their involvement with schools when they are given specific opportunities to make changes (Chrispeels & Rivero, 2000).

  • Acquisition of resources
    Community organizations can acquire new resources as a result of their relationship with the school, such as use of school facilities. As previously noted, Wynn et al. (2000) found that all connections involve the exchange of resources among organizations, including physical resources such as space, equipment, and supplies; program resources, such as curriculum and training; and human resources, such as individuals from one organization working in another. Evaluations of community school programs also showed that families receive greater support and services as a result of school-based programs (Dryfoos, 2000).

  • Increased civic capacity and community development
    Schools can serve as places where the public can come together and be involved in decision-making that impacts their community (Lewis, 1999). The roles that family and community members play in school reform and other collaborative efforts can have implications for the larger community, as reform participants build skills and capacity that can be transferred to address other community needs (Shirley, 1997). Also, Lewis and Henderson (1998) found that when neighborhood family and community members are engaged in school reform efforts, the following outcomes can often be documented: the partnership becomes a means of rebuilding civic infrastructure, the quality of life in the neighborhood improves, and the nature of local power and politics changes. Community-based education reformers have also reported that their work creates a sense of place, develops enduring relationships, empowers people, erases boundaries between schools and communities, and builds an engaged community around schools (Lewis & Henderson).

Cautions in Interpreting Outcomes

Based on the outcomes discussed, it is evident that school, family, and community connections can have a broad array of outcomes for 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. There are also cautions that arose from the literature about interpreting connection outcomes.

First, while the literature indicates that family and community connections can produce positive effects, there is also evidence that different types of connections produce different results (Fan & Chen, 1999; Miedel & Reynolds, 1999; Williams, 1998). Fan and Chen (1999) maintain that the relationship between family connections and student achievement should not be generalized across different dimensions of family involvement nor should it be generalized across different areas of academic achievement. For instance, while a parent involvement activity might be linked to increased mathematics achievement, that same activity can yield different results for reading achievement (Starkey & Klein, 2000). Similarly, a particular kind of family or community connection may result in improvement in one area, such as school behavior, but may have no effect on another variable, such as school attendance (Newman, 1995).

There is also some evidence that particular parent involvement strategies can have very different effects, depending on the age of the child. While establishing a more structured system for parent monitoring of homework may produce positive results for elementary students, the same high level of monitoring can have a negative impact on an adolescent’s homework completion, when the youth is seeking more independence from parental control (Cooper et al., 2000; Walker & Hoover-Dempsey, 2001). These examples point to the need to continue measuring the particular effects of specific school-family connection strategies, in order to ensure maximum impact on student and school success.

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. As we begin to further understand the full range of outcomes that can result, we will gain greater understanding of the sometimes contradictory results that are reported.

Measuring Indirect Relationships and Mediating Factors Between Connections and Outcomes

There are many factors that can affect the relationship between family and community involvement and its many outcomes. Researchers are beginning to measure intermediate variables such as attitudinal and behavioral variables, gender, and social networks (Sanders, 1998). A number of factors, highlighted below, have been identified across the literature as mediating variables between family connections and academic achievement (Chrispeels & Rivero, 2000; Walker & Hoover-Dempsey, 2001).

  • Parenting styles and how parents and their children interact (Chrispeels & Rivero, 2000; Cooper et al., 2000)

  • Parents’ sense of their effectiveness as a parent (Bandura, 1989, as cited in Shumow & Lomax, 2001)

  • Parents’ idea of their appropriate role in their children’s education (Cooper et al., 2000)

  • Parents’ own school experiences (Shumow, 2001)

  • Student characteristics such as attitude towards school and behavior in school, as well as student’s level of intelligence (Sanders, 1998)

  • School factors such as class size and school culture and climate, including staff behavior and school policies that encourage or discourage involvement (Ho Sui-Chu, 1997)

  • Social, economic, geographical, and political context in which the school operates (Yancey & Saporito, 1997)

Taken as a whole, current research also suggests that the following factors seem to affect the level of impact family connections have on student success in more general ways.

  • Demographic characteristics of students, such as gender, ethnicity/race, socioeconomic status, and age (Carter & Wojtkiewicz, 2000)

  • Demographic characteristics of parents, such as gender, ethnicity/race, socioeconomic status, and education level (Feuerstein, 2000; Ho Sui-Chu, 1997)

  • Policy support for involvement through funding and staffing decisions; accountability systems that encourage or discourage connections (Kessler-Sklar & Baker, 2000)

  • School level (elementary, middle, or high school) (Adams & Christenson, 2000)

  • Goal of the connection—whether it is targeted toward student success (Newman, 1995)

Researchers suggest there are also factors that affect the impact that community connections may have on student success. Studies show that social coherence, neighborhood stability, and the character of the communities from which students are drawn are some of these factors (Honig et al., 2001). The character of the community may be determined by policies dealing with community economic development, sociology, racial discrimination, access to medical services, and other issues (Yancey & Saporito, 1997).

In addition to these mediating variables, there is also a need to better understand and document how various school, family, and community connections create the conditions that support student achievement even when they do not impact it directly. For example, as documented earlier in this section, connections can have an impact on students’ educational aspirations, attendance, homework completion, and school behavior. It is a reasonable assumption that these outcomes help facilitate student achievement in class and on tests, but more research is needed to fully understand these intermediate variables that create supportive conditions for student achievement. This understanding and articulation of how school, family, and community connections create supportive conditions for student achievement is critical, particularly as school accountability for student achievement increases.

Need to Measure Both the Process and Outcomes of Connections

In addition to the many outcomes that have been discussed, there is also a need to measure the process of creating successful family and community connections with schools. Understanding the various components of the process will further knowledge about how to make connections in a variety of situations and for a variety of purposes.

Researchers and observers point out that the success of partnership efforts often depends on the existence of strong, trusting relationships between schools, parents, and community members (Cordiero & Kolek, 1996; Lewis & Henderson, 1998; Mapp, 1999; Merchant, 1996). In some cases, building these relationships necessarily must come before more traditional measurable outcomes can be observed (Lewis & Henderson). Yet the field has not extensively documented the appropriate indicators for measuring success in building these relationships.

Recent research from the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform (Gold, Simon, Pickron-Davis & Ballenger, 2000) has focused on the development of indicator areas to measure both the process and the variety of outcomes that can result from the work of community organizing for school reform. Based on a study of community organizing efforts across the country, they have developed eight indicator categories that relate either to student learning or strong communities and neighborhoods. Additionally, the Cross City Campaign is in the process of documenting strategies that community organizers have used within each indicator area, as well measures of success and data sources for each area. This work is an example of capturing both the process and the outcomes of school, family, and community connections.


Measurements of parent and community connections have not yet captured the full picture of these connections and their results. As the field moves forward, we must ensure that we gather information about the different effects that the connections have on the stakeholders involved. The field must also continue to explore new methods for capturing both the processes and outcomes of these complex interactions between schools, families, and communities in order to determine their indirect and direct effects on student success.

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