Support by Education Funders for Family Engagement Is Growing. Why Is That?

photo: Liderina/shutterstock

photo: Liderina/shutterstock

Family engagement is an old idea gaining renewed interest from education funders as some pivot away from an era of top-down reform. The concept has been around for quite awhile. Kids do better at school when their families and communities are involved in their education, but reforms often leave students’ support systems behind. Early signs show that practice is starting to change.

Traditionally, family engagement could look like parent-teacher conferences or homework assignments that get adults involved. However, the field is much broader than that. It includes making sure parents have the information they need to measure their kids’ development and advocate for them. It can mean organizing parents to push for system-level change or simply listening to what parents believe their kids need.

When Carnegie Corporation of New York moved to back family engagement, it took a close look at who else was investing in such work. Carnegie found that many funders were new to the field. Of the foundations funding in this area, 45 percent had started supporting family engagement in the last five years.

For a long time, family engagement had been a cause largely championed by funders interested in early childhood learning, like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation or the Kenneth Rainin Foundation in Oakland. Part of early childhood learning happens before kids enter school, so engaging parents ensures that children are getting the support they need before they get to school.

However, research shows that young children aren’t the only ones who can benefit from families who engage with their learning.

“Family engagement is super-important for student outcomes," said Elisabeth Stock, who runs PowerMyLearning, a national nonprofit that partners with schools and districts in need to personalize learning. "While there’s all this research showing that teachers are the most important people inside the school building for student outcomes, the research also shows that families have an even bigger impact than teachers,” Stock said. “So this issue of how can we unlock what families can do for their kids at home is a really important one.” PowerMyLearning is among Carnegie’s grantees. 

Stock sees potential to encourage engagement at home through the nonprofit’s Family Playlists, which aims to strengthen the learning relationships among teachers, students and parents. The Family Playlist gets parents involved in kids’ learning by having children teach parents about what they’re working on in school. Parents sign off on a mobile-friendly platform that gives them a chance to send feedback to the teacher.

Philanthropists outside of early childhood learning are listening to Stock and nonprofits like hers. The Carnegie landscape analysis estimated about $230 million is invested in the space a year.

Several people in the field trace the uptick in such funding to years of philanthropic education work that didn’t do enough to engage parents and took for granted that families would understand and back changes in schools and classrooms.

“There’s always a great urgency to improve outcomes for kids. We don’t always, as a field, bring all of the stakeholders along,” said LaVerne Evans Srinivasan, Carnegie’s vice president of national programs and program director for education. “I think that’s why there’s a burgeoning interest in really trying to engage more deeply with parents to really have them both understand and have the opportunity to be real partners and participants in the educational process.”

In conversations with leaders in the family engagement field, the Common Core often feels like the elephant in the room. The standards were quickly adopted in most states with broad bipartisan support, only to encounter vocal backlash a few years later, when the reforms were slated to take effect. Opposition came from left and right, in many cases from stakeholders, like parents, who hadn’t been engaged when the legislation passed.

While the reforms initially found support from politicians in both parties, they also got a significant boost from philanthropic investment, especially from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which was estimated to have put $200 million toward the standards. When the backlash hit, the Common Core’s philanthropic backers were swept up in it.

Related: Common Core Backlash Means More Hard Lessons for K-12 Funders, Starting With Gates

Back in 2015, Bill Gates said he and other advocates had not done enough to explain the standards to parents early and clearly. Enough was not done to make sure school and district leaders made the case to parents for the Common Core or prepare them for what proved to be a rocky transition.

Bibb Hubbard, president of Learning Heroes, was a program officer at Gates before she founded the national nonprofit that shares information with parents to help kids succeed academically and developmentally.

“During my time at the Gates Foundation, I was often, quite frankly, frustrated at the lack of investment in parents, and so was super-excited to have the opportunity to go and think about parents and focus squarely on parents,” Hubbard said. Gates is one of Learning Heroes’ backers, along with the Carnegie Corporation.

Since starting Learning Heroes three years ago, Hubbard has noticed the same uptick in philanthropic support for the field that Carnegie captured in its landscape analysis. 

“Since I’ve started, I absolutely have seen some, I think, important momentum and focus on the role parents play in their children’s academic and developmental success, and, I think, an acknowledgement that for many years, there was underinvestment in bringing parents along,” she said.

Learning Heroes represents the diversity in family engagement work, a term that encompasses many interventions. The nonprofit works with partners like PTAs and churches to get parents the information they need to know whether their kids are on track academically and developmentally. Understanding where kids stand compared to their peers is harder than it may sound. Through parent surveys, Hubbard found that 90 percent of parents think their kids are at or above grade level in reading and math, but in reality, that number is closer to 37 percent.

Another focus of Learning Heroes is translating education jargon into language parents can understand, so that when they do meet with teachers, it’s useful. To develop materials, Learning Heroes consults extensively with parents through surveys, focus groups, polls and home visits.

It was Learning Heroes’ extensive work in listening to parents that attracted Carnegie’s attention. In the landscape analysis, the foundation found there was a big gap when it came to funding for initiatives that integrated parents’ voices and listened to their needs.  About 70 percent of the $230 million annually invested in the space goes to providing parents with information on how to engage, and to organizing parents to advocate for system-level change.

Carnegie sees a role for itself in funding the gap it found in projects focused on listening to parents and encouraging collaboration across the field.

“I think it’s critically important that parents be engaged in their kids’ education. We can do a better job in supporting them to be able to do that,” Evans Srinivasan said. “If we listen to them and what they think they need, and supplement that, as well as provide additional resources and capacity to reach their need, then we might actually be more successful in helping parents help their kids.”

Meanwhile, even as new funders back family engagement, longstanding supporters of this approach are still going strong, and there's a lot of action here related to early education. For example, the Kellogg Foundation made a $560,000 grant to the State of Maryland Department of Education in 2017 to implement a statewide early childhood family engagement framework, working in partnership with local organizations "to improve young children's school readiness." This is one of a number of grants Kellogg has made in recent years as it's continued its longstanding support of this field. Recently, it gave another major grant to the National Association for Family, School and Community Engagement to advance its work and make engagement "an essential strategy for improving children's learning and advancing equity by building the capacity of practitioners and stakeholders to advance evidence-based policies and practices."

The Bezos Family Foundation has also been active in this space, as we've reported, with a keen interest in finding new ways to engage parents in their children's learning at a very early age. The foundation bankrolled the creation of Vroom, a research-based digital tool that incorporates brain development activities into the daily interactions between parents and their children aged zero to five.

A larger context of rising support for family engagement is a keen interest among many funders in collective impact approaches to improving education by engaging all stakeholders in a community. Involved parents, everyone agrees, are an essential ingredient of success.