Steve Sheldon

STEVE SHELDON

I’d be happy to.  I’m Steve Sheldon at John Hopkins University and I work at the Center on – for the Social Organization of Schools as well as in CRESPR.

The Center for the Study of – sorry let me – can I start over again?  (Interruption)  So the Center for the Study of Students (Interruption) The Center – wait – at the Center for Research on Edu – on the Education of Students Placed at Risk we really look at the organization, the school context that students – especially students in large urban areas are placed in and how the schools, and the schooling, and the school environment really affect their opportunities to learn.  And at the Center we look at a wide range of where those opportunities come from in the classroom.  Students have a lot of opportunities to learn outside of the classroom and their families, the family environment, the – the experiences that – that families and communities provide students can be a really important part of what goes into giving students a great deal of opportunities to – to learn, engage themselves in learning and really succeed later on in life as a result of – of how they do in school.

The Center for Social Organization of Schools is actually a center that’s been around for over 30 years and it’s really focused on schools as an organization.  So it’s come from a very sociological point of view and perspective or – or approach to what it is about schools and schooling that lead to achievement – student achievement in school.  And so it – a lot of it focuses on structure, whether schools are large or small, tracking or no tracking in schools.  And the part of it that we work at, the part that looks at school, family, and community relationships, looks at how in – in that particular case the – the school, family, and community partnership angle of CSOS really looks at how school structure can facilitate connections with students families, um connections with family members, as well as community used – community organizations and community members at large.

Both organizations are soft money entities so they are grant-funded and you, in sense, write for your life.

The kinds of school, family, and community partnerships that improve and lead to student success really come from a program, a comprehensive program that deals with environments of family and school as a totality and as an integrated part of school activity and school life.  So when I say a comprehensive program, on the one hand I’m saying, “Are they using, for example, Epstein’s 6 types of involvement:  Parenting, Communication, Volunteering at the School, Learning at Home, Having Parents Involved In Decision Making, and then Having the School Collaborate with the Community?”  So in that sense it’s comprehensive.  Now in addition to that what makes for uh partnership program that’s going to connect a student’s successes and outcomes are really activities within those 6 types that are focused on specific goals.  Activities that are focused on things like student reading achievement so that a parenting activity needs to – you know, can connect with student reading, for example, by helping parents get books to have in their house, helping teach parents in a lot of cases how to read with their children or ways to really facilitate a better way of – or a more helpful way of reading with their children, asking questions, um working with their children to figure out how to sound out some of the words in the books rather then just giving the word to their kids.  And so – so those kinds of goal focused partnership practices are the ones that are going to tie most directly to student outcomes, but the way – the way it really needs to work as a part of a comprehensive program – um and those comprehensive programs are also part of the school structure.  That is there are committees in the schools and people are responsible at the school for focusing on family and community involvement and getting activities together, getting those activities implemented.

The characteristics of a high quality partnership program really involve – there’s – well, the characteristics of a high quality partnership program can be really broken down into 2 – 2 segments.  The first is, the program itself has to – has to be run at the school, that the school organization has to be one where it’s going to perpetuate and sustain those programs.  So you need to have a committee that meets on a regular basis to make it part of a commitment at the school.  You also need to plan out those activities.  So a quality program plans what they’re going to do the year before rather then coming up with things at the last minute.  Um, evaluating what you’ve planned is an incredibly important part of having a high quality program.  That way with the use of this evaluation schools and the people who are running these partnership programs can actually learn what went well, what didn’t go well, um what do they need to improve.  If they get parent responses and surveys, for example, they can see what – what touched and connected with parents the most.  So that’s – that’s one part of what goes into a quality program, is that kind of implementation at the school.  But now when you’re talking about what goes into a quality program on the other level is the way the outreach is developed and planned, and that is to think about – it’s important for schools to think about the families that typically do not get involved, that we do not see that involvement, and to think about why.  What are some of the factors in families’ lives that really make it difficult and how can this program and the school really helps parents overcome some of those, what I would call barriers?  We also call them challenges.  And so this might be families that work all day or often times families – you know parents who work 2 jobs.  If they can’t come to a workshop, which is often the case, getting that information out to those families be it through video or through newsletters, but getting that information out to parents so that families, and parents, and family members don’t have to go to the school to get the information and connect with the school, but the school is making that leap.  I think another – another way of – that practices can really deal with high quality practices is, for example, when you have parent volunteers in the school, which is a very common activity when you think about parent involvement, giving parents some training, giving them an idea of what they might be doing in the school and – and giving them some training in backgrounds so that parents – parents don’t need to simply spend their volunteer hours at school stapling up papers to a wall, but if you – but if you want them involved in helping kids read, do math, do science, give them some background as to the curriculum, what you want to teach, the information, the content.  A lot of times parents want to help out but they don’t know how to help out and that goes for the learning at home, but that also goes for when they’re at the school.  And so it’s important to – to really give parents a good foundation as to what they can do at the school and how their time spent at the school can be used most effectively, and I think those kinds – that kind of thinking and those – that forethought that goes into – to these involvement activities can really make partnership activities lead to student success in – in a way that I think you can see some more dramatic returns on that.

Schools face a lot of challenges when it comes to getting families and family members involved in their student’s education.  Among these challenges are families – family life and the – the stress of having to work, the stress of having – you know, when families with – with a lot of children there’s – you know, parents and family members time is spread so thin that they can’t always come in, talk to teachers when its most convenient for the schools.  Um, often times you will – parents – one of the biggest challenges, I think, for some parents is that they had a poor experience and they – they don’t have fond memories of the school themselves.  And so when parents don’t have a good memory of school they’re very reluctant and – and hesitant to come into the school because there’s a lot of emotion going through this and – and parents want the best for their children and – and parents want their children to do well, but they don’t always know how to – to get into the school.  They may not have done well in schools themselves, they – they have memories of – of teachers that didn’t make them feel particularly confident in their abilities, and so they’re reluctant to – to interact with teachers, with school staff, on an equal level, which I think in many ways is very important for helping students succeed in school.  Um, and so – so parents own personal backgrounds are very important.  Um, parents own what their parents did.  Looking at – in the sense, it’s an intergenerational path that goes on.  So if – if one mother or father had – had family members that were very involved they really have strong ideas about what parents should be doing, but if their parents, for example, were never involved and – and let the school take care of all the – the schooling and education, um they’ll be more likely to stay back and maybe stay out of the school unless they are really invited by the school.  So that’s a challenge.  I think also another big challenge on this – on – another big challenge on school, family, and community partnerships is finding time at the school.  Schools, teachers, they have a lot to do and often times we hear from teachers that this is another program added onto the already millions of things that they need to do, just the grading, the working with students, but then, you know, staff meetings for this reform, staff meetings for that reform, so I think time is a big challenge in schools and for many teachers and school administrators.  And I think in many ways that’s probably as big a challenge for getting quality programs as – as the parent factors and – and both of those really need to be negotiated and – and ways need to be worked out to – to create time and to make partnerships a real priority at schools and – and for – for teachers throughout the school.

Social cohesion deals with the dynamics that exist within the relationships that in this case we can – when we talk about parents, the relationships and friendships that parents maintain and so when we talk about a social or a group of people, a group of friends, um a social network that – that a parent, for example, might maintain we talk about a cohesive group.  We’re talking about a tightly knit group where there really is a norm in that group to – to be involved, a norm that your children will do well in school, will value school, and so the cohesive aspect of it deals with how tightly knit people are, the strength of those bonds if you will, of the relationships, um but also it deals with uh a normative aspect.  That is social cohesion really talks about what is valued in a group and how the group makes these values known and – and relative to – to people.  So in relationship to parent involvement and social cohesion can be very important when you see parents and friends, like a group of – of parents who are all friends when they’re talking about where their children are going to college, for example, um or where they want their children to go to college.  That almost has – without even saying it, the implied assumption that school is good, college is valued, and – and their children will go to college.  And what that does is it creates an atmosphere and an environment that students then are raised in that – that just makes the idea of going to college um salient and infused just all in the surroundings and sort of creates a context where you might say that the socialization of those values um are really going to be – can be powerful.  Now social capital also deals with social – with networks and parents’ friendships, but it deals with it in a slightly different way.  Now social capital really deals with the resources that parents can get their hands on through their friendships.  And by resources I mean our – it can be a variety of things.  It can be resources, material resources like books, um information is an invaluable resource, having – doing favors for one another.  Having your friend help you with daycare when you have to run an errand or – or watch your child if you have to go to a meeting.  You know if you have more then one child and you have open house one night but, you know, your other child has to stay home and you need someone to watch them, if you have a friend who can watch for you that – that friend then is a resource.  And so having these networks and having friendships and relationships with other parents can really help get parents involved in ways that give – provide them the time to get involved um or what I’ve also found is the information that parents are able to convey to one another when in the every day conversations – the conversations on the sidelines of the soccer field, for example, parents talk and they talk about things that are going on in the community.  You know, uh their – “The museum is having this exhibit going on or, you know, the – the nature preserve is having a special exhibit on – on this.  Well, let’s all take our kids there.”  Well, you know, some – some parents are more in tune with what’s going on in certain parts of the community then others and when you have a – a nice, strong, large network you don’t have to read, for example, the newspaper every single day to see what’s going on because, you know, maybe you like one section of the newspaper but your friend reads another section and that’s where information about the museum is coming on.  But, you know, what you’re reading maybe has an interesting movie if you read the movies a lot.  You know, maybe you’ll read about a movie that you think would be particularly good for your children go to.  Um, that’s where these networks and these relationships that parents can – that parents have with one another really can benefit them by giving them information without having to do all the legwork to get that information.  So – so it makes some parents’ lives much easier that way.  Um, the information also the parents talk with – with one another deals with what’s going on at the school.  School policies – you know, often times there’s going to be a vote for a change in the policy.  Well, parents will talk to one another, “Well what do you think about this policy?  What do you think?  I like it.  I don’t like it.”  Um, and – and attitudes and beliefs get shaped and through these things – but it’s also getting more information.  I mean some parents don’t know what’s going on at the school because they tend to be more isolated.  Um, and my last – my last thing about social networks and the idea of social capital really deals with the fact that parents can, in a sense, pull their friends into getting involved at – at the school.  And so one parent who’s in the PTA, for example, might be in charge of a bake sale and they have a friend who doesn’t like to get involved at the school and they would rather not be involved, but because they have that friendship the PTA mother or father says, “Come on, help me out with this.  You know, I know you like to bake – you make great cookies, you know, so just do your part here.  Maybe make some cookies, help out the school.”  Um, and by virtue of that relationship they have really pulled the parent into being involved um without it necessarily taking a lot out of the parent who didn’t want to be involved but also seeing, “Well, you know, come with me to Open House.  I don’t want to go alone.  Well, if we both go together it won’t be so bad.”  Well that creates parent involvement right there.  So – so that is one way that social networks and social capital can really tie into parent involvement and – and getting parents involved in their children.

I think one way that parents – oh, I’m sorry – one way that teachers can build upon the cultural assets of families I think is through opening up – opening themselves up to learning about what some of those cultural resources and assets are and ways and norms, especially if the history of the school, the history, the – the teacher’s own personal backgrounds are – are not like the students that they’re teaching, which is often the case in schools these days and its getting to be more and more where the teachers are not like their students, especially in public schools.  Creating assignments where students are talking to their families and family members about family history, cultural history, um cultural norms.  I mean incorporating that into the curriculum is a way of, I think, helping teachers and the school learn more about who they’re teaching, but also sending a message to the families and to the students that one, your culture is valued, um and two, we want – just because the family has a history that is – and a culture that might be different from – from the teacher doesn’t mean that that is not accepted or wanted in the education system and in the school itself.  And, in fact, by drawing on some of those – those cultures and – and incorporating them into the curriculum I think it sends quite the opposite message, which is we want to have your experiences and your culture embedded and integrated into the school culture because – and accepting that so I think that’s one way that they can really draw on these cultural differences in a way that really incorporate families and make students’ education even better.

I think one way that parents invest resources into one another and into the school is through giving their time and their energy to one another and to the school.  So involvement at the school, volunteering, for example, is one way in – that investment of time is a resource that parents can give to the school and an important one, I think, that really can shape the – the climate and the culture of the school.  Um, and it’s a form of involvement that I think rather then helping an individual child can help the school as an organization or as a whole.  So I think that often times you can read that parent involvement at the school is not related to students’ academic achievement, but I think – I think that’s because a lot of the times they’re looking at this as an individual act.  But if you think about it, having a parent volunteer in a classroom is not a direct intervention, if you will, with an individual child.  So you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see those results on an individual level, but rather if you have a lot of parents helping at the school, the school as a whole may rise up and do better and so I think that – that’s one way that parents can – can invest their resources in the school.  I think when we talked about earlier – I think another way parents can help through their investment of resources in one another deals with helping out with child care, carpooling, um helping their friends and other parents have time in their busy lives to take care of everything that they’re responsible for and, as I said and as I believe, parents are very busy and investing in one another can help make – make their lives a little bit easier.  And it’s not – not always easy to happen.  It can happen, but…

One of the things that we know about parents’ beliefs and how parents’ beliefs influence their involvement in school is that the way parents view and construct their responsibilities with regards and in respect to the children’s education has a powerful affect on their behaviors and – and their actions and interactions with the school and with their children.  One of the things that we know with regards to parents’ beliefs also is that it doesn’t matter who the parent is, what culture they’re from, what race, ethnicity, social class they have.  A vast – vast majority of parents want their children to succeed in school.  And especially in this country even – even parents who have immigrated, parents recognize that one of the ways that their children will do better then they are doing in this country and in – in the United States is through educational attainment, through success in school.  So the first that – that schools – teachers need to recognize is that with few exceptions parents want their children to do well and want to help their children do well in school.  Now often times parents may come from a culture that really separated the family and the school contacts and the schools took care of the learning and the parents got the children dressed and to school, but once they walk through those doors, you know, it was the school’s responsibility.  If schools take into consideration the idea and the fact that parents want their children to do well, they can approach parents, even parents who – who generally are – who are – even parents who are use to having distance between the family contacts and the school contacts by saying that the parents are needed to help their children succeed in school.  That is one way to – to bridge the – that difference in beliefs.  Um, I think another important parental belief that relates to parent involvement and that – that schools need to be aware of is the parents own comfort level with the school and with education.  And schools need to be a welcoming place.  Parents need to be invited to the school because often times if they – if they don’t get the invitation they may not know that they’re wanted there, um and that may be one of the most – one of the simplest things that schools can do is extend an invitation, but – but it’s often overlooked I believe.  Um, and I think it’s at the very least a place for – for teachers and schools to start, which is just extending those invitations to as many parents as possible.

One of the experiences that I – that I know of where we see how parent to parent interactions can really affect parental involvement in student schooling comes from a school in Connecticut actually.  And it’s not a suburban school, it’s not middle-class, wealthy, but this school actually has several communities where there’s Portuguese families – there’s about, I think, 3 or 4 sizable populations of – of families that speak languages other then English.  And it was important in order to welcome these parents – it was important for the school to reach out and one – one of the places where they started is by – you know, you make signs in different languages saying “Welcome.  Please come,”  but they also started having parent representatives and liaisons from the community work with the school and these parents were able to talk to their neighbors and their – the other community members in their native language so that while the school may not have been able to speak Portuguese, nobody at the school perhaps could speak Portuguese fluently, they were working with the parent from the community who could go out and make phone calls and communicate what’s going on at the school in Portuguese to families.  So they took one of those community members and they were working with those as a liaison.  So those community members would go out, talk to their friends, their neighbors, and that’s one way where I think you can really find a strong impact of parent to parent involvement interactions (unintelligible) parent to parent interactions that can relate to involvement because what they found out then is the – the parents who speak Portuguese, for example, could communicate back to the school through this liaison or even more then that they then found out through this community liaison that the school really did want them there and they were more likely to come in, come to these conferences, open houses, speak with the teachers.  So I think that – that’s an example of how you can take the resources that exist in communities and from diverse communities and – and use those, in a sense, an entry way into those communities to bring them into the school and to find out more about what communities have to offer.

One way to define an at-risk student is to look at the family income or the parents’ education level, and that is actually the most common way of measuring, if you will, at-risk.  I happen to believe that any student is potentially at-risk.  That is while overall we may find that students that come from families with a low income or families that have recently immigrated, while they may tend to not do as well in school overall, children that come from wealthy suburbs have a lot of problems themselves and they’re just – they’re different.  So what is risky for those students is different then what’s risky for other students growing up in the inner cities, for example, um or for migrant students.  So I think all students are actually at risk for school failure and – and it’s important to keep that in mind.  I would say, however, one of perhaps the strongest predictor of whether or not a student is going to do well or whether or not a parent is going to be involved actually has to do with parents own education level.  I – I don’t think it’s a matter of income.  I think it has to do with a parent’s education level, mostly because that is representative of the experiences a parent has had at school and parents with very little schooling tend not to know the system or how to navigate and negotiate in the system to really advocate for their children when the time comes or even to recognize when its important to do some of that advocacy where parents who have had a lot of education, they recognize the signs, they know who to go to and – and who to talk to about getting their child in one classroom versus another.  So I think – I think one of the greatest signs for at-risk is the parents’ education, but it’s not an overwhelming factor and it’s not something that you can only look to.  Um, as I said, I think students from the suburbs have – are at-risk a great deal.  Often times with – drug use, um is a – is a big factor.  So the may have all of the academic support in the world but if they get involved in a culture of drug use they’ll withdraw from school as a result of that drug use.  So I think that’s…

Some of the practices at school that communicate high expectations I believe are – some of the practices that communicate high expectations to students have to do with a rigor at the school, that is how – how forceful do teachers, and parents, and the community want to be in insisting that their children learn.  And force – forceful, obviously not in the physical sense of using force and – and beating your kid to learn.  Um, but I think – I think there’s a tone of voice.  I think there is – in many ways I think expectations are communicated through what we say and the goals that we set for our students.  And so often times – often times a community or a family and even teachers will – will have a sense that a student is going to go to college no matter what and they don’t say, “If you go to college maybe you will experience a wonderful math or lab in the science.”  They say, “When you’re in college you’ll see science is a completely different field from what is in this textbook,” for example.  Well, the difference between if and when I think can be quite powerful.  So I think there’s a lot in the language that people use that – that often times we don’t – we don’t think about.  And – and I know people talk about that a lot more these days then perhaps they use to, but I think – I think it’s important to think about the language that we use, especially in the very every day, simple, thoughtless interactions that we have.  Um, when you’re joking – you know, when – when teachers and school members are joking around with students they’re communicating their ideas about those students to them and – and I don’t think – I don’t think we should be hypersensitive or – or go over every single word we say a million times before it ever comes out of our mouth, but I think we need to be thoughtful about what we’re expecting and what we – what we hope for kids and what we expect for kids.  And I think there’s a big difference there.  Um, hope means there’s still some doubt.  Expect means there’s very little doubt.  And I think that’s – that’s an important distinction to make.  I think there are – we can think about our hopes, our fears, and our expectations of – for students and I think the difference between those are sometimes very subtle but yet very important.  So I think the language that people use – and – and the language that schools use when they communicate with families, the language that – that parents use when they communicate with their students, and the language that teachers use when they communicate with students, all of those are very important in shaping how a student feels about him or herself and where he or she might go in the future in school.

One of the issues that is my personal soapbox, one of the things that I would like to see teachers think about and pre-service teachers and inservice teachers think about a little bit more is this idea of parent to parent interactions and how the parents that they are working with can be a resource to help them reach out to those “hard to reach parents.”  There – I think there’s an untapped wealth that exists between parents and one of the things that we don’t know yet that I think we have to really work on is how can schools help build relationships among parents and social networks of parents in ways that – that can really benefit – help them benefit one another?  And so I would really like to see schools and teachers think about what they can do to connect their – the community of parents and to – to get them to think about how – how all these parents can help the school and at the same time help their own children, and in the course of that perhaps help one another with each other’s children.  Sort of develop a – a – a good sense of community not just at the school but among – among the parents that send their kids to that school and – and get good support there because I think – I think there’s just a lot of – a lot of wealth that exists between parents um, and I think that groups of parents do not necessarily need to be feared.  I think often times a principal or a teacher will fear one parent because they will bring 5 of their friends in there and demand something different.  And I’m not saying that that doesn’t happen, but on the other hand, that can be very valuable as well.  That can be threatening, but that can also be very valuable.  And I think there’s a lot more to be – to be looked at and thought about with regards to how – how the social networks of parents can really operate to help students and to help schools do a better job to educate all kids.  

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