In the initial review of literature (Rutherford, et al., 1993) we identified five categories of reform outcomes: students, parents and families, teachers, schools, and communities. Additionally, we were interested in the institutionalization of parent, family, and community involvement reform efforts as evidenced by the degree to which schools/districts believe them to be useful and continue their implementation.
Limitations. One recommendation for future research that we made in the Summary Literature Review was that short and long-term potential outcomes of middle grade school/family partnerships on students, teachers, schools, school districts and communities be investigated. Two implications can be drawn from this recommendation. First, examining the potential outcomes implies comparisons between partnerships and other conditions; for example, similar schools, families, and communities without partnerships. Second, exploring outcomes over time, or longitudinally, is also implied.
Our research design (qualitative; ethnographic/descriptive) and methodology (semi-structured interviews, questionnaires, follow-up telephone interviews, and document review) allowed for neither comparisons between partnerships under controlled conditions, nor a longitudinal study of us sites or participants in those sites. Our study was conducted over a six-month period with two visits to each of the selected sites. In short, we did not follow programs over time; neither did we follow students exposed to those programs over time.
The outcomes that we have reported in the Case Study Summaries in this volume, and in Volume II of this Final Technical Report (Case Studies) [not available on line], are almost entirely based on the perception of participants, rather than hard evidence, e.g., norm- or criterion-referenced tests. The reported outcomes have not been verified independently. While perceptions are important, they may be colored by enthusiasm and vested interest, and may not reflect actual conditions as they exist.
Outcomes that we report here, e.g., changes in attitudes and behaviors, depend on a few informants rather than a representative sample of teachers, parents, and others in these sites. However, key informants we interviewed described changes in organization and school procedures which were then verified by documents collected at the site, and/or the reports of other participants.
In materials gathered from schools/districts, increased student achievement was often an implicit or explicitly stated outcome of parent, family and community involvement. While research evidence supports positive effects of family and community involvement on achievement (Henderson and Berla, 1994), materials we gathered rarely cite research evidence, and appear to rely more on intuitive knowledge of these effects than actual data from research.
Relationships and attitudes. Students whose parents or family members were involved in school activities reported positive attitudes about school, teachers, and homework. In interviews with students, we learned that they enjoyed school, that their teachers were more interested in them because their parents frequently communicated with the teacher, and that homework was less difficult.
Although some students told us that "there are times when I don't get along with my family," generally students expressed positive attitudes about relationships with their parents or family members. Most students felt that the involvement of parents and family members was a positive benefit to them; students said that they knew that their parents and family were interested in their education and success in school.
Students involved in programs that were linked to the community felt that they had gained a new perspective on what it means to "be in the real world of work." The relationships that they had established with community members in the workplace often continued beyond the duration of the internship. It appeared that these program opportunities created new roles for students within the community, both as learners and as workers.
Increased skills/knowledge. Many of the parents and family members with whom we spoke indicated that they had increased their own skills and knowledge. Adult Basic Education and General Educational Development courses, they felt, not only strengthened and improved their own skills but also gave them the ability to help their children at home.
Learning to deal with multiple teachers and different organizational patterns in the middle grades presents challenges for parents and families. Involved parents and family members reported that they "had learned a lot about how schools operate." Typical of many of the responses, one parent told us, "If you want to help your child, you've got to learn the system."
Parents and family members involved in programs offered by the school, e.g. advocacy and empowerment programs, indicated that they had learned skills that could help them advocate for their own children and other children in the school. One interesting unexpected outcome of advocacy and empowerment training, as reported by parents and family members, was that after the training they were viewed "as threats" by school personnel.
Relationships and Attitudes. Parents reported generally positive attitudes about schools and teachers. They said that building relationships with the school and teachers resulted in an "open atmosphere, where we can talk about problems when they do happen."
Connections with the school and curriculum. Parents and family members whom we interviewed felt that they were more closely connected with the school because of their involvement. Increased communication between teachers and families was most often cited as the reason for this closer connection. Communication most often took the form of personal messages from the teacher, or face-to-face communication in school/family conferences. Less often, teachers or school personnel who were directly responsible for parent/family involvement would make home visits to talk with family members about student progress.
Connections with the curriculum were established in each of the adult-child learning programs that we visited. Parents and family members indicated that they understood more of what their children were learning in school, and felt more confident about providing support for their children when they knew what was being learned in the classroom. In restructuring sites, connections to the curriculum were established when parents and family members were involved in decisions about what would be taught in the middle grades. These families indicated that they felt a greater sense of responsibility for what their child was learning when they were involved in these decisions.
New roles. Schools and parents and family members themselves created new roles in the partnerships we observed. Parents indicated that when their children were in the elementary grades, they often served as volunteers in classrooms helping as room mothers or with housekeeping chores. As their children moved to the middle grades, the nature of their involvement changed. They were no longer needed in those same roles. Because they wanted to remain involved, they searched for new roles. One new role that emerged was that of advocate. Schools provided programs on parent empowerment and advocacy, and parents indicated that they had become advocates for all children in the school. In several of the sites we visited parents and family members were used as resources in classroom and the school. The expertise of parents and family members was drawn on to supplement instruction, and provide additional human resources in working with middle grade students. Parents and family members reported that they "felt useful" and enjoyed interacting with both school personnel and middle grade students.
In addition to assuming the role of advocate, parents and families also share in the decision making process. Many of the parents and family members we interviewed serve on school decision making teams. In school restructuring sites, we observed parents and family members actively engaged in decision making about the organizational structure and operation of the school, and in one case, the establishment of a middle grade school.
One of the new roles for parents and families that we observed was as a trainer of other parents and school staff. In one site where there is a strong and active parent organization districtwide, parents train other parents and family members in organizational skills, parenting, and advocacy. Parents and family members have even served as trainers of teachers in statewide reform efforts and the effects of these reform efforts on districtwide programs.
Connections with families. Teachers reported that when parents and families were involved with the school, strong connections were made between themselves and the families of the students they taught. Most often the teachers we interviewed talked in terms of student academic success and the fact that active involvement by parents and family members usually resulted in increased student achievement and fewer discipline problems.
Many of the teachers told us that family context was an important variable in dealing with parents and family members. As relationships were built with families, over time, teachers gained a greater respect and understanding of "where the family is coming from." Understanding family context made it easier to connect with families, and ultimately, students. We found that teachers employed numerous strategies in order to communicate with families. Teachers believed that once they had established regular, frequent communication with a family, developing strong partnerships was possible.
New roles. In addition to regular instructional duties, teachers told us that they had become facilitators with families. Where integrated services are located in the school, these teachers are empowered to make decisions that affect the families of the students they teach. Teachers often link families with social services and other agencies that provide basic family needs. The teachers we interviewed felt that this new role was "not just another add-on" to their teaching responsibilities, but a vital part of establishing partnerships with families.
Increased Parent, Family and Community Involvement. In all of the sites that we visited, key personnel stated that an intended program goals was an increase in the number of parents, families and community members that were involved in school/family partnerships. Program records we inspected indicated that increases in involvement did occur, especially where schools and districts used multiple strategies to reach parents.
Support for reform efforts. An increase in the number of family and community members involved in reform efforts usually resulted in additional support for school/family partnerships. These supports took the form of additional human resources available to assist with the school instructional program, and as agreement and collaboration with planned reforms. School personnel reported that linkage with community members and businesses provided on-going support for reform efforts. In one case, however, the school became a political arena for differences in educational goals, philosophies, organization, and strategies to accomplish reforms.
Connections with Schools. Community members and businesses told us that their relationships with middle grade schools and students had changed significantly because of their involvement in reform efforts. In the sites we visited, we observed that community connections with the school had moved beyond the traditional Adopt-a-School model, although some programs still carry that title. Interviews with community members and businesses revealed that while financial support for program efforts was still a component of their relationship with the school, they now viewed their involvement as an additional resource to help schools achieve their mission and goals related to reform. The involvement of community members and businesses often took the form of serving as resources in classrooms, as "experts" in their field; we also observed community and businesses involved in the decision making process at the local campus level.
Leadership: a new role for communities. The idea that the school belongs to the community is not new; however, many of the school personnel and community and business members we interviewed told us that "schools have tended [in the past] to operate in isolation from the community." As connections between schools and communities have been fostered, we observed that community and business members now assume leadership roles within the framework of reform efforts. In several of our sites where organizational and curriculum changes were an integral part of reform, we observed community members and the business community taking an active part in leadership of the reform efforts; in at least two of our sites, leadership from the community was responsible for the initiation of middle grade reform.
How useful are school/family partnerships from the perspective of those involved in reform? Is there evidence that schools/districts support these partnerships through policy frameworks and by providing fiscal and human resources? These two questions frame the discussion of program institutionalization. In over 80 interviews with school personnel, parents and family members, and community and business members, school/family partnerships were viewed as critically important to the success of reform efforts.
In each site, finding appropriate strategies and activities to involve parents, families, and the community was most often a matter of trial and error. Unsuccessful strategies and activities were discarded; successful strategies and activities became an integral part of the reform effort. Informants indicated that alignment with the needs of families and communities and program goals was primarily responsible for the long term implementation of school/family partnership strategies and activities.
Support for school/family partnerships as a part of school reform is evidenced by the priority that leaders within each site placed on these partnerships. In the sites we visited we noted that state, local (district), and/or school policies regarding parent and family involvement were in place. Although it was noted that these policies did not guarantee that school/family partnerships were a priority, they provided a framework for program requirements and often specified program operations.
Human and fiscal resource allocations for school/family partnerships are frequently linked to budgetary priorities within a school or district. It appears that where school/family partnerships are viewed as important, where program leadership advocates for these partnerships, and where there is historical precedence for school/family partnership efforts, schools and districts are more likely to support them by providing and/or continuing human and fiscal resources.
As parents and families, teachers, schools, and communities participate in partnerships we found evidence of positive outcomes for the stakeholders in reform efforts. The most compelling outcome of these partnerships is the link to student achievement. From our research it is also the least documented outcome, often relying on an intuitive, deeply held belief that the involvement of parents, families, and the community improves student achievement and success. Changed attitudes, new roles, stronger connections with curriculum, and linkages to schools and the community are results of school/family partnerships.
Documenting the outcomes of school/family partnerships is critical for their success. Future research may document other outcomes; the outcomes found in these nine sites may be helpful as school/family partnerships are planned and implemented in other contexts.