Four Questions for Karen Mapp

On Wednesday, December 8, 2010 Teaching Matters, Common Sense Media and Computers for Youth, co-sponsored a Special Principal's Forum entitled Connecting Schools and Families: A Conversation with Karen Mapp. Dr. Mapp, the Director of the Education Policy and Management Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-author of the acclaimed book, Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships, gave an engaging and informative presentation full of practical strategies school leaders can use to improve family involvement. Teaching Matters caught up with Dr. Mapp, before the forum to discuss the challenge and necessity of building partnerships between schools and parents to ensure student success.

Teaching Matters: What are some of the major challenges urban schools face in increasing family involvement in their students' education?

Karen Mapp: What I’ve seen is that school staff have received very little training on brokering partnerships with families. There is very little curriculum or training available for administrators and educators who have work to do around capacity building. Many educators want to engage families but don’t know how. So the first thing schools need is the knowledge of how to build partnerships. Next, we need to look at the values and belief systems we have about our families. When schools have been unsuccessful they often draw the conclusion that parents don’t care. I have found many parents do care, but they don’t know how to be engaged in their children’s education. So schools say to parents, “You’re not doing your part” and parents say to schools “I don’t feel welcome.” What we need is a shared responsibility paradigm designed to build capacity among parents and practitioners, so both sides will gain from the relationship.

TM: How can schools best support students who do not come from nurturing home environments?

KM: The first thing I question is how do we know, how do we assess the level of parental involvement in the home. A few years ago, Dr. Gerardo Lopez did a study on the role parent involvement plays in supporting children’s educational development. The study focused on the children of migrant families in Texas. Most of the families did not attend school functions or participate in the PTA, things we traditionally think of as family involvement. However, their children were considered successful in school. What Lopez found was that these parents often brought their children to the fields to work alongside them. The parents instilled in their children a work ethic and an understanding that, without a good education, they would end up doing the same type of work. So while the school may have thought the families weren’t involved, the parents were actually engaged in their children’s education in interesting and positive ways.

For children who lack support at home, schools can provide supports through partnerships with community-based organizations, full-service initiatives, mentors, healthcare, mental health, and portfolio services.  The question becomes, what kind of information can we give families so they can create a home environment where education is a priority? How can we give families in overwhelming circumstances the tools they need to grow and learn?

TM: You’ve mentioned the need for effective partnerships between schools, families and communities, what are some of the first steps schools can take to build, strengthen and maintain partnerships with families and communities?

KM: Leadership has to be there. I always enjoy doing work with principals.  They are charged with steering the ship to success and maintaining the fidelity of initiatives.  They have to talk the talk of family engagement and walk the walk. Principals must let staff know this is an important priority; it’s not just something nice to do out of obligation. In Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, Tony Bryk identifies five essential supports to transform a school. Parent and community ties are one of these essential supports. Elevating the role of our families is a necessary ingredient in the recipe of school improvement.

Schools can start with a baseline assessment. There is a tool in the book called the Welcoming Walkthrough, which allows schools to see where they are on some basic indicators. The research says family engagement must be linked to student learning. If the school’s reform strategy is around literacy then the family engagement strategy should focus on the same. Family night and open house night are opportunities to help build parents capacity to support their children’s learning.


TM: How can schools work with parents and communities to extend learning beyond the traditional school day?

KM: I read an article in the Boston Globe that said African-Americans tweet more than any other group in the United States; which led me to think, how can we use the technology to provide familes with tips and tools to support their children’s learning? We have to be more creative about how we give families information. Parents are dying for information on how to support their children’s learning. It is up to schools to build relationships and build trust with parents and then to share information that is relevant. Ron Ferguson [Senior Lecturer in Education and Public Policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education] was speaking yesterday about how we can use these technological tools to give families the support they need. That’s the next frontier.


Karen L. Mapp, Ed. D, is a Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and the Faculty Director for the Education, Policy, and Management Master’s Program. Karen is the co-coordinator with Professor Mark Warren of the Community Organizing and School Reform Research Project at HGSE

For additional information on family engagement, please visit HGSE’s Family Involvement Network of Educators (FINE) to connect with a community of thousands of educators, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers dedicated to strengthening family–school–community partnerships.

This Principal's Forum is part of the Innovative Principal program made possible through the generosity of New York Community Trust.