It's the kind of document that only a federal bureaucracy could create, and you still have a little over two weeks to comment on it. Meet the DRAFT POLICY STATEMENT ON FAMILY ENGAGEMENT FROM THE EARLY YEARS TO THE EARLY GRADES.
It's a policy so bureaucraticky that it took two departments-- Education plus Health and Human Services-- to come up with it. Like all good government documents, it ranges from dull to obvious to dumb to terrifying. And it wants to address, in particular, pre-K. Also pre-pre-pre-K. Its stated purpose is to formulate some policies "on systematically engaging families in their children’s development, learning, and wellness, across early childhood and elementary education settings."
Announcing the Problem
I tell my students never to open a piece of writing with a Bulletin from Captain Obvious (The Sun Also Rises is a book that people have read), but this opus leaps right in with "Families are children’s first and most important teachers, advocates, and nurturers." That's not a problem, but the kind of governmental attitude that gives some folks fits starts to show up just one paragraph later with this sentence:
Both Departments recognize the critical role of family engagement in children’s success in the early and elementary education systems.
Does it? Why, that's mighty good of it, like a guy who says, "Lady, I think you look perfectly okay," or a white guy telling a brown guy, "Hey, I've decided it's perfectly okay for you to be here." Still can't see it? Then look at the definition of "family engagement."
We refer to “family engagement” as the systematic inclusion of families as partners in children’s development, learning, and wellness.
Congratulations, families! The government is going to "include" you as partners. It is the government's table. You're invited to have a seat at it, but it's their table. Consider how different this is than the feds saying, for instance, "We hope that families will allow us to serve as their partners as they do the important work of raising their children."
Can you imagine calling a parent in to a conference and opening with, "I'd like to invite you to help me raise and educate your child properly." If you can't, you are not prepared to be a government bureaucrat.
Gallery of the Obvious
We kick things off with some over views. First, there's an overview of the research ranging from the ridiculously obvious ("warm, responsive and sensitive parenting promotes social-emotional competence and academic success") to the poorly reasoned (we know there's a connection between reading to children and later vocabulary and success, but we get confused about correlation and causation) to blindingly obvious information that we often ignore in our other policies (growing up in poverty and unstable families makes learning hard).
We recap policies like Head Start and IDEA and ESEA that recognize some of this engagement stuff. Because bureaucracies have no sense of irony, we will not note that the USED has done its best to completely trash IDEA.
We will also fuzzy up the language by mixing up engagement with families and engagement within families.
Then we'll reach a conclusion that despite the obvious importance of family and stuff, "family engagement is not equally valued or implemented across the early childhood and elementary systems." Because passive voice is a great way to avoid explaining exactly what you're talking about/ Who is not valuing family engagement? That would probably be useful to know if we're going to fix the problem, but it remains a mystery.
The feds have some theories about why the valuing and implementing isn't happening.
* The perception that engaging with the family is just sort of extra, and that the mission is to work on the child. Somehow these unnamed persons miss that a small child's life is "intertwined" with lives of the family. Are those unnamed person clueless dopes?
* The local, state and federal authorities give too little guidance or requirements. Yup. When people screw up, it's because The Authorities didn't micro-manage them enough.
* Not enough resources. Well, now, there you may be onto something.
* The system is trying to do family engagement, but neglects to notice, understand or respect the culture and language of the family.
* "Teacher and provider workforce" (!!??) doesn't get trained properly in family engagement.
But The Authorities have figured out that something needs to be done-- and that something reveals yet another obstacle, because here's the federal idea of a solution:
”High-quality” early childhood programs should systematically include specific, measurable, and evidence-based family engagement strategies that are attuned to the needs and interests of a diverse array of primary caregivers, including but not limited to fathers/male caregivers, mothers/female caregivers, young parents, grandparents, foster parents and others.
No, I'm not talking about the list of caregivers-- that's perfectly fine. What exactly is a "specific, measurable and evidence-based" strategy for connecting in a working relationship with a family? The administration's data fetish has taken it to some ridiculous places before, and this might be even worse. Will we develop a Parent Pair-Bonding Stability Index? Will there be a standardized test to measure how well the parents and teachers like each other? Or will these data be generated by unicorns dancing through fields of shamrocks looking for the coordinates of El Dorado?
How To Do The Engagey Thing
The feds offer up their list of principles of effective family engagement practices. Let's get clued in.
First (like even before #1), you have to "establish a culture where families are seen as assets and partners in children's development, learning and wellness." Once again-- apparently it's our world, and families just live in it. Maybe we could see ourselves as the families' partners instead, which is definitely better than just assuming that of course Those People can't parent properly. But in the interests of balance, we have to note some families are not actually assets in their children's development. We all have stories of students who would have been better off raised by wolves: the student who was always tired because the trailer she lived in was always cold because Dad spent the utilities money on beer; the student whose mother was in prison after trying to run over that student with a car when the student was eight years old; the student whose parents shaved her head because she was defiant. So, yes, it's a mistake to assume that families aren't in the game when it comes to raising their kids, but it's also a mistake not to pay attention when they tell us through word and deed that they are not involved, interested or invested in their children. Point being, this little note tossed off by the document builds the whole structure on a foundation carved out of some huge and complicated assumptions. Just saying.
But assuming we somehow find such a culture, what are those principles?
Create continuity for children and families. I thought this might mean something useful like "don't staff the school with two-year TFA temps," but no, it means something far more alarming:
Implement a vision for family engagement that begins prenatally and continues across settings and throughout a child’s developmental and educational experiences.
So, yeah. As soon as you know you're pregnant, the government will be there to get a-workin' on your child. Um. Yikes.
Value equal partnership between families and professionals. Equal? So, the family is not the primary party responsible for raising this child? Yeah, this is going to go over super-well with conservative parent groups.
Develop goal-oriented relationships that are linked to development and learning. Oh, man. I'll try to summarize this in a minute but reading the bureaucracy-speak makes me feel all slimy. Basically, the relationship between families and professional staff takes time, but they should learn to work "jointly" on goals and strategies and learning. Like many paragraphs in the document, this one barely suggests that we are talking about helping a real live human being grow up.
Prioritize engagement around children's social-emotional and behavioral health. Damn. "Ensure constant monitoring and communication regarding children's social-emotional and behavioral health." Good lord, faceless bureaucrats-- do you even hear yourselves?? "Constant monitoring"??!! And then "ensure that children's social-emotional and behavioral needs are met" like somebody has the magical powers to do that.
Ensure that everything is culturally and linguistically "responsive." While this is an exceptionally valid point, it does not appear to make allowances for cultures that say that the family is responsible for the child and the government is responsible for backing the hell up.
Train staff people to engage with families. Gotta tell you-- if somebody doesn't know how to engage productively with other carbon-based life forms, I'm not sure you can train them to do it well. But certainly people who aren't born to the community in which they're teaching need to learn about that community. (Probably take more than five weeks, though)
Build families' capabilities and connections. Building connections sounds awesome. Robert Putnam's book Our Kids talks about how having connections is one of the privileges of wealth. Giving families ways to reach out, get help, and be heard-- that would be swell.
Embed family engagement within programs, school, and community stuff. And continuously learn and improve. That last one seems obvious and hardly worthy of saying out loud until you remember that NCLB and ESSA and certainly Common Core (not technically a federal program-- just a federally beloved program) have no such provisions. So hooray for federally recognizing a need for a program to learn and improve, I guess.
Implementing effective family engagement practices to promote positive child outcomes will require bold leadership and dedication from all institutions where children learn.
First, "positive child outcomes" is the kind of cold, soullessly vague language that makes people hate the bureaucrats. Second, it doesn't really require "bold leadership." Connecting and involving and helping parents is a marathon, not a sprint, and it benefits from solid, steady, stable work. What the Folks In Charge can do is give teachers (and staff) the space and resources to do their jobs.
Now, if you want organizations and schools to lead an incursion into people's homes, that may require leadership. Not so much "bold" leadership as "pushy, intrusive, dismissive of the people you're there to serve" leadership.
The plan goes on to delineate what state and local authorities should do.
On the state level, recommendations include investing and allocating resources and training to get programs all engagey. Plus establishing policies that help. Plus "communicate constant messages" aka drop some PR bombs on the issue.Because "messaging" is almost as important as actually doing something. Also, make sure that colleges and universities are training people to do this stuff.
Pretty pedestrian stuff. But then there's this recommendation.
Develop and integrate family engagement indicators into existing data systems
They offer a couple of suggestions of where such data might be found, like child care quality rating systems, higher education coursework, and family surveys, so, no-- they don't have any idea how to measure these things they say they want to measure.
And they would like states to set up an incentive to reward folks for doing this stuff that we don't know how to measure the effectiveness of, though it does look like they might be willing to go old school and measure inputs, whether those programs reap identifiable results or not.
The plan has recommendations for local establishments as well. These run a bit more specific than the others, and come closer-but-no-cigar to crucial elements missing so far.
The devil, as always, is in the details. "Families as Decision Makers" is an encouraging heading, but it's followed by "Schools and programs should establish policies that ensure parents and families are prepared to participate in planning, decision-making and oversight groups." So families can have a seat at the table if they show us they're ready to do it the right way.
Some of the recommendations will be familiar as Things Many Districts Already Do, such as home visits. That also includes local versions of the same things featured elsewhere in the report. That includes the data fetish. Look-- here's a detail that's not scary at all.
Local schools and programs should track progress on family engagement goals, as detailed in family engagement plans.
So, you know-- the feds would like families to think of them as another family member. Maybe an older, wiser, brother. Honestly-- does anybody ever read these documents and think about how they look to civilians?
If we go waaaaaaaaaaayy back to the beginning, we find citations of evidence about the ways that poverty and family instability get in the way of student learning. But we have to go waaaaaaayyy back to the beginning because those facts are never acknowledged again.
There's no question that some families need help, and that the children growing up in those homes have more decks stacked against them than a drunk in crooked back-jack parlor. I sympathize, as I will bet almost every teacher does, with the point of view that says, "Well, we can't just stand back and do nothing and hope for the best." I certainly don't sympathize with the point of view that says, "Well, you know, there's no helping Those People."
But somehow, when I think of outreach and help and support and strengthening of families and community, my first thought is not, "Well, what these folks need is constant data monitoring from the moment they conceive." Nor do I sympathize with a stance that says, "I'm from the government and I'm here to offer to let you help me raise your child."
I'm not a mushy person, but I cannot read a report like this without being struck by the complete absence of warm, human language in addressing a human challenge. I don't know how you address these issues without using words like "love" and "respect" and "empathy" and "kindness," but I know you definitely can address them without resorting to "data."
Remember what I said waaaayyy back at the beginning-- this document is open to comment until January 4th. If reading all this just gave you a huge headache, zip on over there and comment. Who knows-- maybe Acting Pretend Secretary of Education John King might send it back to the drawing board. At least you will have helped generate some data.