Voices in Education

Teaching Teachers to Work with Families: A new study by the Harvard Family Research Project recommends substantial changes in how teachers are trained and certified
The following article originally appeared in The Harvard Education Letter (volume 13, number 5). Copyright 1997 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

At the heart of any successful parent-involvement program are teachers who are not only committed to building family and school relationships, but who also have the skills and knowledge to do it well. To succeed, a teacher must be able to make good use of families' expertise and resources, at the same time reaching out to families to support them. All the while, the teacher must also meet the day-to-day challenges of the classroom.

To succeed at building parent involvement, teachers need professional development experiences that prepare them for the task, just as they need preparation in subject matter and teaching skills. But a new study conducted by the Harvard Family Research Project, "New Skills for New Schools: Preparing Teachers for Family Involvement," finds that few education and certification programs for teachers address family involvement in substantial ways.

Lack of Specifics

Family Research Project researchers reviewed teacher-certification requirements for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Only 22 even mentioned family involvement. "And even when it was mentioned, often it wasn't defined in clear and precise terms," says Elena Lopez, the Family Research Project's associate director. Phrases such as "parent involvement," "home-school relations," and "working with parents" often appeared without any explanation or examples of what they meant, she says. "The conclusion was that these issues were not a high priority in state certification."

When researchers examined 60 teacher-education programs in the 22 states that did mention family involvement, they found little substantial coursework. For example, while 88 percent of the courses that mentioned family involvement dealt with parent-teacher conferences, and 80 percent covered parents teaching children at home, fewer than 25 percent covered communicating with parents or understanding parents and families. Likewise, more than 85 percent of these courses used lectures, discussions, or required readings to cover family-involvement issues, while less than 25 percent gave students an opportunity to work directly with parents or even to hear guest speakers.

Exemplary Programs

Researchers at the Harvard Family Research Project did identify nine teacher-education programs that focused on family involvement as an important concept, engaged students in hands-on activities, and promoted a broad concept of family involvement that recognized the value of home-school collaboration.

At Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, for example, some teacher trainees take part in a "cultural immersion" program: They live on a Navajo reservation for the academic year, attending cultural events in the community and school board meetings. Another program, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, sends graduate students into ethnically diverse neighborhood schools for 15 hours each week, where they tutor individual students and/or lead classroom activities. And at the University of Houston at Clear Lake, teacher- education students teach classes in parenting, household finance, English as a Second Language, and other subjects to local parents.


To help teacher-education programs develop a stronger emphasis on parent involvement, the Harvard Family Research Project suggests the following changes in both policy and practice:
  • The project recommends developing a national infrastructure to support teacher preparation for family involvement. "There is a lot of information out there now, but I think it's scattered and fragmented," Lopez says. "Everybody is sort of reinventing the wheel. What we need is some kind of systematic network." This network could work with professional organizations to develop standards and disseminate information to teacher- education programs.
  • Research is needed on teachers who have taken part in family-involvement training. Lopez says, "We need to find out what teachers are actually learning from these courses, and how they are applying what they learn in their own work, and whether parents notice any difference." Research also can help define what specific steps schools can take to support family-involvement efforts by their teachers. Ultimately, research also needs to examine how teacher preparation affects student achievement and behavior.
  • States should establish clear, specific guidelines for preparing teachers to work with families. Lopez cites California as a state that has developed comprehensive and understandable requirements for teacher traineesfor example, they must demonstrate knowledge of how cultural differences affect children, families, and communitieswhile leaving schools free to decide how to meet the requirements.
  • Family-involvement training needs to be available to teachers working with students of all ages. Right now, early-childhood educators receive more training than teachers in elementary or secondary schools, Lopez says, while studies show that family involvement in schools declines with each successive grade.
  • Parent-involvement training can be improved by encouraging experts in different fields and specialties to collaborate. For example, professors specializing in different aspects of education could teach classes jointly, Lopez says. Education experts also could work with teachers from other fields, such as public health and social work, to offer teacher trainees a wealth of experience from different perspectives.
  • Family involvement should be integrated throughout teacher education, not presented as a separate component to be handled in separate classes and assignments. This will help teacher trainees, who often feel overloaded by the demands placed on them, to focus on these issues without having to take additional courses.
  • Professional organizations should make family involvement a priority. It will take consistent messages about the importance of family involvement, coming from many sources, to help overcome the resistance of many teachers and administrators. Professional organizations can play a critical role in establishing standards and helping develop innovative training programs.
  • Teachers also will need substantial in-service training on family involvement. Professional development must be ongoing so that teachers can maintain and adapt their knowledge and skills. In-service training also can help engender a school culture that values strong family involvement, encouraging new teachers at the school to follow the examples of their more experienced colleagues.
  • Teacher-education programs need to offer more direct field experience working with families. This allows teacher trainees to evaluate the theories they are learning in real-world settings. Collaborations between universities and nearby schools, for example, could give new teachers a chance to work with families and evaluate that experience in an academic setting.
Lopez hopes the findings in the Family Research Project report will help educators and policymakers revamp professional development, so that teachers get the kind of training and experience they need to forge stronger relationships with parents. The findings also can supply schools and school districts with ideas for improving their current relations with parents, she says.

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