Preparing Educators to Involve Families: From Theory to Practice

reviewed by Susan Auerbach - August 07, 2006

coverTitle: Preparing Educators to Involve Families: From Theory to Practice
Author(s): Heather B. Weiss, Holly Kreider, M. Elena Lopez, and Celina M. Chatman (Eds.)
Publisher: Sage Publishing, Thousand Oaks
ISBN: 1412909090, Pages: 182, Year: 2005
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Mandates for parental involvement have become increasingly common components of school reform programs, grant guidelines, and educational policy in the past 25 years. Yet surveys suggest that working with parents is a key source of stress for new teachers and administrators, that preparation programs are inadequate in this area, and that parents and educators are often still “worlds apart” in their views, as Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot’s (1978) classic work observed (Jacobson, 2005; Johnson & Duffett, 2003; Levine, 2005; Shartrand, Weiss, Kreider, & Lopez, 1997).

Preparing Educators to Involve Families takes a fresh approach to addressing these gaps with a dozen teaching cases embedded in brief essays on psychological and sociocultural theory. Editors from the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) have carefully constructed cases to illustrate theoretical concepts, reveal the complexity of home-school relations, and promote educators’ empathy with—rather than deficit-based blaming of—low-income families of color. Provocative discussion questions, suggested readings, and introductory sections linking research and practice make the book useful for teacher education, educational psychology, and child development classes.

The book is organized into four sections: microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem, each reflecting the nested levels of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems framework of children’s development. The framework posits linkages among the contexts that influence children, from the proximal effects of adult-child interactions in the microsystem of home or school, to adult-adult interactions across microsystems in the mesosystem (as in parent-teacher conferences), to the myriad ways in which adult institutions, cultural schemas, and social structures shape child outcomes at the broader levels of the exosystem and macrosystem. Though many parental involvement studies use Bronfenbrenner’s model, this book is distinctive for exploring home-school dilemmas at each level, and for shifting its analytical lens across all levels for greater insight.

The seven theoretical and empirical essays are written by the editors and specialists in educational psychology, child development, anthropology, and social work. They elaborate processes and mechanisms within the four systems, from intrinsic motivation and social executive functioning, to family funds of knowledge and racial socialization, which are then seen clearly at work in the cases. The essays also bring welcome attention to family strengths and the oft-neglected influence of child behavior, parental developmental needs, and community assets on family involvement. One might wish for the inclusion of other theory, such as social capital or Hoover-Dempsey and Sandler’s (1995) model of parent role construction, or for more specific implications for practice; however, the editors chose to keep these sections tightly focused and open-ended, leading to the cases that are the heart of the book.

The cases are grounded in data from studies in the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Pathways through Middle Childhood, especially Weiss and Stipek’s longitudinal School Transitional Study of 400 racially diverse, low-income K-5 students. Most of the cases concern African American or Mexican American families with students in the primary grades; other cases involve these students’ teachers; and others deal with their principals and other staff members at the school. Written by a mix of authors, the cases vary in the realism of their dialogue and characterization, but all are absorbing and compelling, with evocative titles like “What Words Don’t Say: Talking about Racism” and “My Favorite Subject is Lunch: Motivating a Disengaged Student.” A handy chart in the introduction summarizing case features helps direct readers. Unlike more superficial teaching cases, these are densely detailed with long quotes by multiple players that raise multiple questions. This lends to their authenticity and to the editors’ goal of “capturing complexity,” but may make the cases unwieldy for some university classes. It would have been helpful to include a few simpler scenarios, based on the editors’ own suggestion that professors move from easier to more complicated topics when using case studies to help illustrate an issue.

Many themes in the cases reflect common predicaments in home-school relations, such as difficulty communicating with so-called “hard-to-reach parents,” tensions around family-school collaboration in meetings on Individual Educational Plans, distrust between parents of color and white teachers, or cultural mismatch in views of discipline and children’s activities. We meet, for example, a black mother and white teacher wary of discussing a racial incident; a Mexican grandmother who confronts the principal about her school safety worries; a Cambodian father who forbids his daughter’s after-school involvement; and teachers who despair over attempts to contact poor single mothers. Quotes from educators about families show a mix of awareness, frustration, and mistaken assumptions, as in the following:

You know, she [the student] just doesn’t have the support at home. These are working people, you know. . . and they don’t have access. They probably don’t go to the library a lot or go to museums or go to plays. They don’t come from that kind of background, so it’s pretty hard for them to give their children that kind of knowledge. (p. 76)

The immigrant mother in question is, in fact, a former teacher. Readers who recognize themselves or their colleagues in such remarks may be moved to get to know families better.

Few cases depict the extremes of families in crisis, burned out teachers, or a lack of resources often found at high-poverty schools. Rather, many of the dilemmas are subtle, with children doing fairly well and well-intentioned adults now sharing concerns about them, and wanting to help to improve the situation. In one case, a boy who is torn between negative peer pressure and joining a college outreach program has immigrant parents who want him to go to college, relatives who help him with homework, and a teacher who agonizes over barriers to access for Latinos. The overall impression is essentially one of caring educators and supportive families that could do better with more communication and coordination. Such cases may not be relevant to educators who face urgent problems with fewer supports.

Preparing Educators is superb in using cases to make theory come alive, and in applying theory to make sense of family beliefs and practices. Excellent discussion questions encourage readers to imagine alternative scenarios, relate cases to their own experience, and explore the big questions of who has responsibility for children’s learning and well-being. The scenarios lend themselves to collective problem-solving and role-playing that will animate graduate classes. Rather than easy solutions, the editors stress the context-bound uniqueness of each dilemma. For those who want more closure and practical tips, the HFRP web site ( offers expert commentary and instructors’ notes on half the cases, plus additional cases and resources.

All educators could benefit from exposure to these rich cases, with their strong theoretical base and problematization of family involvement issues. However, some preservice teachers who lack sufficient experience with families or theory may be overwhelmed by the complexity. Thus, the book is perhaps best suited for research universities’ teacher education programs at the masters level, experienced teachers, administrators, or researchers who have wondered about similar home-school dilemmas.


Hoover-Dempsey, K.V., & Sandler, H. M. (1997). Why do parents become involved in their children’s education? Review of Educational Research, 67(1), 3-42.

Jacobson, L. (2005). Survey finds teachers’ biggest challenge is parents. Education Week, June 22.

Johnson, J., & Duffett, A. (2003). Where we are now: Twelve things you need to know about public opinion and public schools. New York: Public Agenda. Retrieved July 17, 2006, from

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (1978). Worlds apart: Relationships between families and schools. New York: Basic Books.

Levine, A. (2005). Educating school leaders. New York: Education Schools Project, Teachers College, Columbia University. Retrieved April 1, 2005, from

Shartrand, A.M., Weiss, H.B., Kreider, H.M., & Lopez, M. E. (1997). New skills for new schools: Preparing teachers in family involvement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 07, 2006 ID Number: 12646, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 10:08:02 AM

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