The Interview: Harvard’s Karen Mapp on ESSA, Family Engagement, and How Schools and Communities Can Partner to Help Kids Succeed

The Every Student Succeeds Act has introduced a subtle change in connecting families with schools. The term "parental involvement" has been replaced with "family engagement."

Karen Mapp, who advocated for this change during her time as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Education in 2013, emphasizes the significance of this shift. As the former deputy superintendent of family engagement for Boston Public Schools and currently a senior lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education, Mapp recalls an encounter with a grandmother who attended a parent-teacher conference for her granddaughter. The teacher asked when the "real parents" would be present.

Mapp believes that any adult caregiver who takes responsibility for children should be included, acknowledged, and respected. She recommends several adjustments to how family engagement is approached in schools, as it plays a crucial role in preparing students for college, enhancing high school graduation rates, and improving academic performance.

The core of this approach involves treating families as genuine partners, acknowledging their invaluable insights into their child’s learning. Mapp offers her recommendations on how schools can achieve this.

Please note that the following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

: How would you describe the current state of family engagement in schools?

Mapp: I am incredibly optimistic about the current state of family engagement in schools across the country. Many school districts now recognize that true, respectful partnerships between families and school staff are essential for student improvement and overall school progress.

What do you mean by school improvement?

By school improvement, I mean not only academic achievements such as grades and test scores but also factors such as social-emotional development, attendance rates, and students’ attitudes towards school. School personnel have come to realize that in order to achieve these benchmarks, they must cultivate strong partnerships with families.

What does the research say about the importance of family engagement?

Summarizing over 50 years of research is challenging. However, a recent study conducted by Johns Hopkins on the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project highlighted the positive impact of families and school staff meeting through home visits focused on building trust and respectful relationships. These visits resulted in increased attendance rates, and the children involved were more likely to be on or above grade level by the third grade.

With each passing year, more quantitative and qualitative research is conducted on various family engagement initiatives. The beauty of this is that researchers have been working for the past 10 to 15 years to identify the most effective forms of family engagement. For a long time, schools have made assumptions about what forms of engagement were the best. However, now we are finally able to quantify the value of certain practices in terms of improving outcomes for children and schools. We are finding that strategies that actively involve families in understanding and supporting the school’s learning and developmental goals produce the most effective results. Some of the traditional practices, such as homework help, back-to-school night, fundraising, and attending school events, which have been around for centuries, are not necessarily the most impactful.

Can you provide examples of practices that should perhaps be phased out?

What are some of the most recommended family engagement practices for schools?

It is important to approach the topic of family engagement in schools with caution, as one size does not fit all. When working with school systems, it is essential to consider the context of the school, including its location, the background and demographics of the children, and their goals. These factors shape the family engagement strategy that should be implemented. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education developed the dual-capacity framework for family-school partnerships, which emphasizes the training of both families and teachers to collaborate in improving education. This framework has identified several effective practices that should be integrated into any family engagement strategy.

One of the fundamental pillars of effective family engagement is establishing relationships of trust and respect with families. This relational component serves as the foundation for any successful initiative, and maintaining trust is crucial for its sustainability.

Another key pillar is ensuring that the initiative is connected to learning. Traditional strategies often failed to provide parents with essential information regarding what their children should know and be able to do. By neglecting to share these important details, families were left unaware of their child’s educational goals.

Collaboration with families is yet another important pillar. Family knowledge and expertise must be respected and valued, creating a two-way street where schools actively engage and work alongside families, rather than solely providing information to them.

An interactive approach is also crucial. Schools should provide opportunities for families to actively participate and practice new skills during events, rather than solely observing teachers and students. This hands-on experience allows families to better support their child’s learning by acquiring new tools and tips.

Lastly, it is vital to approach family engagement through an asset-based developmental lens, rather than a deficit lens. Communities should not be viewed as recipients of services or in need of fixing. Instead, they possess a wealth of assets that can greatly benefit school staff and the overall educational environment.

Additionally, family engagement practices should be culturally responsive and respectful in order to effectively meet the needs of diverse communities.

What specific strategies have been successful in different locations?

In collaboration with Ilene Carver, a former teacher from Boston, and Jessica Lander, a current teacher in Lawrence, Massachusetts, I have co-authored a book called "Powerful Partnerships." This book is designed for teachers seeking guidance on building strong partnerships with families throughout the academic year, from August to June. One notable strategy we discuss is transforming the traditional parent-teacher conference into a family conference. During this conference, the student is encouraged to actively contribute by discussing their strengths and challenges. This dialogue between the family, teacher, and student aims to identify ways in which everyone can collaborate to ensure the student’s success. By shifting the focus from a one-sided teacher-parent conference to a shared responsibility partnership, anxiety is reduced for both parties involved. Families have expressed their preference for this style of conference, as it allows for their voices to be heard, and teachers appreciate the dynamic collaboration rather than acting as sole experts.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has been a significant step forward in supporting family engagement. This federal policy incorporates more elements of the dual-capacity framework and has made changes in how district budgets are allocated. We aimed to secure greater funding for district positions dedicated to family engagement, hoping to increase the set-aside from 1 percent to 2 percent. Unfortunately, we were not successful in achieving this increase.

Which states do you consider to be leaders in implementing effective strategies and policies for engaging families?

I take great pride in the progress made by Massachusetts, as they have incorporated family engagement proficiency into our state’s educator evaluation standards. New York is another state that has also achieved this. However, the next step should be to integrate language regarding family and community engagement proficiency into the teacher credentialing system. This would encourage teacher preparation institutions to prioritize capacity-building in these areas during their training programs. Many teachers have expressed that they have not received any training in family engagement, which can lead to ineffective practices.

What are some challenges in promoting family engagement in schools?

One of the main challenges is the lack of training among educators. Many educators feel unsure and lack confidence in their ability to effectively engage families. Additionally, there are often long-standing practices that have been passed down over the years which are not effective, such as the traditional parent-teacher conferences. By exposing educators to effective engagement practices, we can implement and sustain programs that have proven to work. It’s not necessarily a lack of willingness on the part of educators, but rather a fear stemming from lack of experience and sometimes negative past experiences. By improving the capacity of our professionals to engage families in a more effective way, they will enjoy the process and be more enthusiastic about it.

If a teacher sought your advice on how to better engage families, what would you say?

Engaging families is a skill that develops over time and cannot be mastered by following a simple checklist. It requires practice, reflection, and self-interrogation. In our Powerful Partnerships program, we provide reflective exercises where educators write about their core beliefs regarding families and family engagement. We also offer small, manageable changes that can be implemented in their practice, gradually working towards more comprehensive approaches. It’s important to understand that there is no quick solution or list of tasks to check off. Like any skill, it requires continuous learning, reading, and practice. Some districts have started providing family engagement coaches, who work with school staff to improve their engagement strategies. At Scholastic Books, we coordinate a workshop series for trainers to assist school teams in learning about family engagement. Ultimately, it’s about changing one’s perspective and mindset, rather than simply completing tasks.

Do you find that most teachers genuinely want to engage families? Are they often overwhelmed by their many other responsibilities?

From my experience, the majority of teachers are truly passionate about engaging families and express a desire for guidance and support. Even those who may initially be hesitant become more enthusiastic when they witness the positive impact of family engagement. Teachers have shared with me that they would have engaged families earlier in their careers if they had known how much it would enhance their job satisfaction and make their workload easier. While the initial investment of time can be demanding, especially considering the already full plates of teachers, they recognize that family engagement is not an additional burden or add-on, but an integral part of their teaching practice.


  • owenbarrett

    I'm Owen Barrett, a 31-year-old educational blogger and traveler. I enjoy writing about the places I've visited and sharing educational content about travel and culture. When I'm not writing or traveling, I like spending time with my family and friends.