Educators and school leaders know how important it is to build relationships with families and communities to support students in their development. Family engagement helps educators to know their students on a deeper level, builds cultural understanding, and enables consistent messaging from school to family. When educators are confident in their ability to engage with families and school communities, the relationships they build can improve student outcomes (Bryk et al., 2010; Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003; Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Kraft & Dougherty, 2013; Kraft & Rogers, 2015; Weiss et al., 2013). Given this, over the past several decades school systems and teacher preparation programs have increasingly focused on developing preservice teachers’ knowledge, skills, and dispositions for working with students’ families (Epstein, 2001, 2018; Weiss et al., 2013).
However, despite promising developments in teacher preparation programs to address the importance of family engagement, a disconnect remains between the preparation we hope preservice teachers receive for family engagement and what is actually delivered and learned (Barnyak & McNelly, 2009; Brown et al., 2014; Evans, 2013). With the way teacher programs are structured, family engagement is rarely afforded its own course in prep programs but rather simply embedded in other courses as an add-on for special education or multicultural education (Hiatt-Michael, 2001). And what is taught may not actually be developing skills for authentic and meaningful engagement with families.
To address this gap, we set out to review existing research on how teacher preparation programs train preservice teachers to improve their efficacy, knowledge and skills in engaging with students’ families in authentic and productive ways. Our goal was to be able to assist teacher preparation programs, researchers, and policymakers working to identify, develop, and implement evidence-based practices in teacher preparation programs.
What we know about preparing preservice teachers for family engagement
Of the 25 studies reviewed, ten of them measured the impact of an entire family engagement course. While findings varied, many of these studies noted a significant change in preservice teachers’ knowledge and skills, dispositions, and their authentic relationships with students, their families, and the community (Warren et al., 2011). Generally, these interventions were measured by self-reported survey data or course assessments where preservice teachers’ expressed their learnings and attitudes at the end of the course. Those were then compared to their beliefs and knowledge prior to the intervention.
When studies weren’t measuring the impact of an entire family engagement course, they measured the impacts of practicums, school-based family nights, and standalone or within-course learning experiences such as simulations or e-learning modules. For those particular interventions, they too were also found to shift preservice teachers’ mindsets towards realizing the importance of parent communications (Lazar, 1999). Although interventions varied widely, the studies showed exposing preservice teachers to situations where they can interact or simulate interactions with parents does grow preservice teachers’ confidence and support for community and family engagement practices (McCollough & Ramirez, 2012).
Overall, the 25 studies reviewed have consistent evidence that learning experiences focused on preparing preservice teachers for family engagement are correlated with positive effects on preservice teachers’ knowledge, beliefs, and self-efficacy for family engagement. While it is difficult to compare the effects of various learning experiences because every study used different outcome variables, some trends are encouraging to observe and useful to note. These trends align with what we know from the research on how teachers develop expertise—through guided scaffolding and practical experience— that enables teachers to rework existing skills, knowledge, and beliefs (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2007).
With the caveat that publication bias may be limiting the inclusion of studies with negative or null impacts, it is encouraging to observe that improvements in preservice teachers’ capacities are found regardless of the duration and nature of the learning experience. This is an important finding for teacher preparation programs who are concerned about how to “fit” family engagement within their broader curriculum.
What we don’t know (yet) about preparing preservice teachers for family engagement
Our findings suggest, however, that there continues to be a lack of rigorous empirical research examining the causal impact of interventions designed to improve K–12 preservice teachers’ capacities to engage with families in U.S. public school settings. Reviewing these studies as a whole offers insights into certain gaps in the literature.
First, as with all program evaluations, studies evaluated interventions as full packages, effectively limiting our ability to develop theories about what exactly leads to better or worse preparation for family engagement. This is a particular area of growth for future evaluations of courses focused on family engagement. While this body of research has done well to suggest that these courses are generally improving preservice teachers’ capacities, they shed little light into which exact activities, pedagogies, or assessments are more and less useful in preparing preservice teachers. For researchers, this is a fruitful area for future research.
Second, although a number of studies examined interventions implemented across a number of treatment groups and across different program settings, there was little attention to how variations in implementation may have led to differences in outcomes. This is an area of growth for the research field, with the potential for multisite studies that can help build our collective understanding of if/how certain interventions such as family school nights, web-based family engagement curriculum, and role play simulations can remain effective while being variously tailored to local contexts and preservice teachers’ needs.
To begin to advance research that meets these calls, we offer practical suggestions for future teacher educators, researchers and policymakers. While some of the suggestions will require creative efforts across the field such as designing new ways to measure preservice teachers’ skills and future practices, others can be readily acted upon when designing future evaluations.
Education Researchers and Teacher Educators
Like previous reviews of family engagement interventions in teacher education (Evans, 2013; Smith & Sheridan, 2018), we call for more methodologically rigorous research in the field. We encourage more researchers to use control groups and/or to leverage naturally occurring random assignments to deal with issues of selection bias and maturation effects. We acknowledge that many teacher educators and researchers are concerned about equity issues (it may seem unfair to withhold treatment from preservice teachers when preparation programs have such limited time already) and/or logistical issues (it is difficult to randomly assign students when preparation programs are hamstrung by university administrative processes or external licensure requirements) to implement these suggestions.
That said, there are innovative ways to overcome these issues. After all, while the core principle of having a control group is that they do not receive the intervention at the same time as the treatment group is receiving it; this does not mean they cannot receive the intervention eventually. For instance, a family engagement workshop can be run twice and preservice teachers can be randomly assigned to attend the first or the second. If all preservice teachers are tested in between the first and the second session, as well as after the second session, then we can identify both the short- and medium-term impact of the intervention, as well as the relative impact of the intervention on two different groups of preservice teachers.
Alternatively, it may be possible to leverage quasi-random assignment that already exists within teacher preparation programs as preservice teachers may already be effectively randomly assigned to certain sections of a family engagement course due to class size limits, or to take their family engagement course in a particular semester due to enrollment limitations. If section assignment is random, then it may be possible to select one of the sections to receive an additional treatment (e.g. a family engagement practical experience) and then to compare the outcomes of those in the treatment section with those in the control sections. This is a research design that has been used in other evaluations of teacher preparation interventions (e.g. Mahalingappa, Hughes, & Polat, 2018; Yeh & Santagata, 2015).
Similarly, it may be possible to compare cohorts of preservice teachers across years, provided all else but the intervention remains effectively the same. For example, researchers could compare beliefs and self-efficacy survey results, end-of-year reflections, and EdTPA scores of two cohorts of preservice teachers undertaking a one-year program, where one cohort receives an additional family engagement-focused course and one cohort does not. This cross-cohort comparison research design has been used in other evaluations of teacher preparation interventions (e.g. Hirshberg, Flook, Enright, & Davidson, 2020; Santagata & Yeh, 2014)
We hope this article provides enough evidence to suggest that family and community engagement can be leveraged, taught and researched in teacher preparation programs. However, given the gaps in research, policymakers should consider funding and implementing research efforts in family and community engagement strategies. By using more rigorous research designs, policymakers will be able to confidently support and advocate for practices that will result in deeper levels of relationships with families and the community-at-large. If policymakers invest in the research studies that can more clearly delineate the relationship between an intervention and its outcomes, there is opportunity for greater trust, transparency and efficacy between policymakers and educators. The investment will pay off.
Undertaking more rigorous research designs and outcome measures will not be an easy task; however, using control groups, randomization, and more practice-focused outcome measures are good first steps. They are also worth it, particularly if we seek to determine what preservice family engagement interventions can be brought to scale to ensure equitable, high quality learning environments for all students.