Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Parent Involvement or Parent Engagement?

Larry_Ferlazzo's picture

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of guest blogs on how teachers view parent engagement and involvement in public schools. Yesterday, Renee Moore offered her perspective on how much parent involvement educators really want.  Today, Larry Ferlazzo shares his thoughts on the difference between parent involvement and parent engagement. 

“When it comes to a breakfast of ham and eggs, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed.”

This old saying is roughly analogous to the issue facing schools today as they consider the kind of relationships they want to build with the parents of their students. I would characterize it as a difference between parent involvement (the chicken) and parent engagement (the pig). I first become aware of this contrast through a study of organizing work by the Industrial Areas Foundation in Texas schools. Boston College professor Dennis Shirley wrote about the IAF’s decades-long efforts in his 1997 book Community Organizing For Urban School Reform.

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines involvement as “to enfold or envelop.” It defines engagement as “to interlock with; to mesh.” Those definitions get to the crux of the difference. When schools involve parents they are leading with their institutional self-interest and desires – school staff are leading with their mouths. When schools engage parents they are leading with the parents’ self-interests (their wants and dreams) in an effort to develop a genuine partnership. In this instance, school staff are leading with their ears.

What are the important differences between the two? Here are a few key points to keep in mind:

Whose Energy Drives It? Who Initiates It?

When we’re involving parents, ideas and energy tends to come from the schools and from government mandates. We tend to sell ideas. School staff might feel they know what the problems are and how to fix them (and generally are well-intentioned).

When we’re engaging parents, ideas tend to be elicited from parents by school staff in the context of developing trusting relationships. More parent energy drives the efforts because they emerge from parent/community needs and priorities. At Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, we began an internationally recognized family literacy project to provide computers and home Internet access to immigrant families AFTER parents suggested the idea, organized other parents, and worked with teachers to develop an implementation plan.

What Is the Invitation?

When we’re involving parents, we might be irritating them – pushing them to do something about what we as staff might perceive as important. We may be asking them to do things without necessarily having a trusting and reciprocal relationship with school staff. Perhaps their only previous conversations with teachers have been when their child has been in trouble.

When we’re engaging parents, they are challenged to do something about what they feel is important to them. Staff learn what parents believe is important through developing a relationship, often through home visits. The work of the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project in Sacramento, and the Industrial Areas Foundation in Texas and around the United States, always begins with home visits to initiate conversations and learn about parent hopes and dreams. The IAF contrasts this “conversation” approach – which is two-way – with the typical “communication” approach schools take – which is one-way.

What Are the Roles Of Parents and School Staff?  

When we’re involving parents, the parent is generally directed towards completing tasks selected by the school staff – or the parent may be a client who receives services and information.

When we’re engaging parents, the parent is considered a leader or a potential leader who is integral to identifying a vision and goals. He/she encourages others to contribute their own vision to that big picture and helps perform the tasks that need to be achieved in order to reach those goals. Parents in the city of West Sacramento reached out to hundreds of other parents, organizing multiple community gardens at school sites that provided food to families, supplementary ingredients for school lunches, and opportunities for science instruction.

When we’re involving parents, school staff can fall into the role of a social worker who does things for parents, or who tends to tell them what they should be doing with their child.

When we’re engaging parents, school staff act more as community organizers who help parents do things for themselves, and who elicit from parents ideas about what parents and school staff could be doing to better help their child and their community.

What Is the Purpose?

When we’re involving parents, schools tend to focus on supporting students by strengthening and assisting school programs and priorities.  

When we’re engaging parents, schools support students by developing parent relationships and often working with parents to improve their local communities.  Richard Rothstein and others have documented how schools on their own might be able to narrow the achievement gap, but without adequate affordable housing, accessible health care, and the availability of good jobs, it will be impossible to eliminate it. Schools in Texas and Los Angeles have worked with the Industrial Areas Foundation and member institutions that connect to parents of their students (e.g., religious congregations, labor unions, community groups) to gain neighborhood, city-wide, and state-wide improvements in these areas.

It’s All Good – But Engagement Is Best

I am not saying parent involvement is bad. Most studies have shown that just about any kind of increased connection between schools and parents is beneficial for the student. What I am saying is that parent engagement is better, and offers opportunities for transformational beneficial change – for the school, for the community, for the family and for the student.

I am also not saying that the distinctions are always so clear-cut. The question is not: Are you are always one side or the other? It is: Which side does your work with parents and families tend to be on?

Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and Social Studies to English Language Learners and mainstream students at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. His book Building Parent Engagement In Schools (written with Lorie Hammond) will be published by Linworth Publishing this summer. He also writes a popular blog on teaching English Language Learners called Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of The Day and recently became a member of the Teacher Leaders Network Forum. Prior to becoming a high school teacher five years ago, Larry spent 19 years working as a community organizer. He also writes for In Practice, a group blog populated by teachers in low-income communities from across the United States.


Hey Larry, This is a great

Hey Larry,

This is a great post that helped me to crystallize my thoughts on the role that parents play in schools. For the majority of my career, I've felt the disconnect that you describe between "involving" and "engaging" parents, but I never had the language to explain what I knew to be happening.

What's interesting to me now is that literally EVERY school that I've been a part of has lead with the mouth---"involving" parents----instead of with the ears---"engaging" parents.

Why do you think this is so?

Is it because "involving" is so much easier than "engaging?" Is it the result of a subtle professional arrogance---the "we know better than you" syndrome? Is it because school leaders are just checking tasks off the to-do list when designing opportunities for parents to partner with schools?

And another question: Do schools serving different demographics have different levels of "engagement" and "involvement?" Is it more likely for schools serving suburban populations like mine or schools serving high needs populations like yours to have "engaged communities?"

Some part of me thinks that my parents would be too busy to be "engaged," but perfectly happy being "involved." They wouldn't find any added value in the kinds of things that you describe as engagement because schools are secondary in their lives----but maybe schools play a more central role in high needs communities?

You've got my mind rumbling now...
Bill Ferriter

Bill, You raise some


You raise some important questions -- not unlike questions that are considered in community organizing about connecting to institutions with more moderate-income families.

I'd like to think that many school leaders think of involvement instead of engagement because that's the only thing they know. If that's the case, we need to learn their goals and help them see that engagement can help them reach those goals more effectively and quickly.

I'm sure you're right that the need is more obvious in lower-income communities for engagement instead of involvement. However, as the recession is showing us, many moderate income communities are finding that they're not as far from those types of needs as they had thought. Perhaps there's an opportunity to help them see schools as more than just a place to send their kids for education. Maybe they're open to seeing schools as an institution that can be helpful to the whole family.


Larry, Federal and state


Federal and state funding needs to be allocated in a manner that would better help to serve the needs of all parents who have the willingness to become more involved in their child's education. I believe that parents can benefit from effective ways to help their children at home. I love working with parents and strive to provide them with the educational tools that can help them realize how very important they are in helping provide stronger foundations to which we teachers can add. Schools ought to prioritize how to provide stronger support to parents. I would love to see more parents establishing stronger ties to their children's schools.

You had me at the opening

You had me at the opening quote. I have never heard this issue defined so clearly before. I wonder if there is writing on the wall here for the future of the superschool. I posted something about this in a more tongue-in-cheek way on the ACT ning (Accomplished California Teachers). Not unlike the mega-churches that are popping up which serve multiple purposes for a community, a wonder if there's a future in this model for schools?

I think that while involvement is, as you say, well-intentioned, it is also a tremendous commitment that requires evolution of thought in what the purpose of schools are to a community. Many teachers and staff (and even many parents) began in our profession at a time when the traditional relationship between school and community was locked in place in its own roles. But that does not stop our need to evolve as a profession and as a working model.

It can't happen overnight. We must infiltrate those troops of teachers and staff and parents with fresh ideas. We must covertly become our own army of out-of-the-box thinkers who look at the problems square in the face and solve them by asking ourselves the hard questions. We must help our students achieve by thinking all them are as ours.

Great post, Larry. Tomorrow night my school is putting together groups of threes (teacher, parent, and student) in groups that are each tackling one issue as a means to reflect and gain insight into the problems and victories that face our school community. I'm going to make copies of this and share this post.

Thanks so much for your insight.
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron
aka Tweenteacher

Heather, I love the points


I love the points you've made, and would also love to hear about any reactions you get at your meeting about these ideas.

I would, though, like to say something about the mega-churches you mentioned. During my organizing career, religious institutions were key participants in our work, and I do think that we can look at many of them as both models and allies as we explore expanding the role of schools in community improvement efforts.

However, I don't think you'll tend to find mega-churches involved with these kinds of broad-based organizing efforts. In fact, in my experience, many tend to seem more comfortable with the involvement model instead of the engagement ones. Again, as I say in my article and in my forthcoming book, "involvement" is good. I think "engagement" is better. I just think we might want to look at other institutions -- including some religious ones (as well as secular groups) for lessons on what has worked.

It would be interesting, though, to spend a little more time exploring a little more about what institutions have explicitly used engagement strategies. I might very well be wrong on the mega-churches. If so, it certainly wouldn't be the first...or last time!

Larry Ferlazzo

Larry, Thanks for the

Thanks for the definitions of both involvement and engagement. I think this can carry over to the classroom as well. The best scenario is engaging students in their learning - getting them to contribute to the process over just being involved in the process. I've been a part of an engaged community and know how energizing this role can be.
Engagement of parents and other community stake holders can be threatening to leaders who like to know where their organizations is headed, don't you think? I mean, if you engage parents then you might lose control of where the mission is headed and I can see how that might be a frightening prospect for some.
I appreciate your perspective from the community organization aspect of the work we do. Very enlightening. Thank you.

I love this post. We don't

I love this post. We don't have much of either involvement or engagement at my school, and that's something we're trying to improve, but it's interesting to read this and get a sense of the differences. I agree that we need to strive for engagement, but I'd settle for some involvement to start. :)

Awww. While I liked the post,

Awww. While I liked the post, I have to admit, I was a little bummed. I was really hoping for a list of how-tos! At our school, we don't have many parents who are engaged OR involved. Clix http://uncomfortableadventures.blogspot.com

Very interesting

Very interesting post.
Question comes you need committed teachers who feel professional enough to listen to parents and engage discussion. How do you deal with teachers if they are only concerned with getting their paycheck and doing their "job"?

Excellent post -as a parent I

Excellent post -as a parent I agree engagement is best.

An issue arises when parents who would like to become engaged with the school or even only their child's classroom are rebuffed. One can get labeled a meddling, troublesome parent very easily even without actually being the overdemanding, finding fault with everything parent. (Unfortunately, it is those parents - the overdemanding ones - who may have the best interests of their child or all children at heart - that give all parents a bad name in some eyes.)

Mike also had a good point in his comment above - there are teachers who lack the desire to engage parents - for whatever reason - laziness, feeling threatened, control-issues, lack of knowledge on how to do this - and a parent has little ability to change that situation no matter how strongly one wishes to become engaged.

I find at our school - parents are in general asked to be involved in the checking the homework sense - but are generally not asked to become engaged. I find this frustrating and often I feel condescended to as I am told what is expected of me.

Thanks Larry! I really

Thanks Larry! I really appreciate your insight.

Another point to consider would be overall community engagement with the district as a whole. A successful community relies on the success of the schools. Community engagement with local tax payers, local businesses, and even potential families moving into the area would contribute to the overall success of the district.

Fantastic points - love this blog!

This is some great

This is some great information on classroom management and discipline as well as child behavior problems. Many times the parents are the ones who want their child to have better behavior but they are the last ones to do anything about it.

A quibble with your analogy.

A quibble with your analogy. I think the roles are reversed and as teachers and parents we need to jump whole hog into engagement.

I've seen this same phenomenon as the magazine industry moved into the Internet space. There was a shift that took place from information-delivery to an audience to information-sharing within a community.

Shared values are crucial for this to work. All parties need to understand that, in spite of any disagreements there may be about process, we are all committed to the success and well-being of all the students.

Just a quick thought: Your

Just a quick thought: Your "involvement is good, engagement is better" mantra, with the excellent delineation of the characteristics of each, applies equally well to any organization that "uses" volunteers. A helpful reminder to always listen, even if we have a lot to say!

How refreshing to read an

How refreshing to read an educator's perspective on the sharp contrast between involvement and engagement. Larry Ferlazzo has done an outstanding job differentiating between thee two constructs within the topics of initiation, purpose, role, and invitation. It is true that federal and state mandates often inhibit the level of engagement that teachers and leaders need, but Larry reminds us to keep our eyes on the goal. Depending on a variety of factors, many of which I discuss in my textbook, School-Community Relations, 3rd ed., parent involvement, or better yet engagement, remains elusive. Kudos to Larry Ferlazzo for reminding us of how essential parents are and for distinguishing between mere involvement and meaningful engagement. Further thoughts of mine on the topic of parent involvement and whether or not it can be mandated can be found at http://blog.eyeoneducation.com/2010/06/18/parent-involvement-is-essentia....

Sorry Larry I have to

Sorry Larry I have to disagree. As an INVOLVED parent who can demonstrate and model the INVOLVEMENT and COMMITMENT as my daughter graduated from the nation second largest school district and is a freshmen at Vassar. The key was the establishment of committing to my daughter, who develop a contract with me, her idea. The element of involvement is the level of commitment the parents initiate from home and connects to the school and community. That level of commitment is a process for which the element of engagement is. I can engage just by having a simple conversation, listening..... the involvement comes when there is an affirmation and it can be a lifelong experience. The key element that is missing or that we have become distracted is that this a commitment for all stakeholders, who should be supporting and agreeing on what is best for the child. As the 1st educators(parents) in our children lives, there should be an element of respect that ALL can partner and be a part of the decision making process together. That's the INVOLVEMENT as the envelope is SEALED.

Thanks, Larry. There's a

Thanks, Larry. There's a piece of cowboy wisdom that has served me well: "Admire a big horse and saddle a small one." In addressing the grand and inspiring vision of parent engagement, I have embraced the notion of "vaguely right". "Precisely right" only kicks in when I get closer to my destination. I have given myself plenty of slack in my efforts of home visitation to Hispanic families of preschoolers. My first and prevailing goal was to build a relationship with the families I visit. I have positioned myself as a learner in our partnership. I have learned so much from them and their passion for their children has fueled their response to increased access to books in Spanish selected for the interest and developmental age of their children. After two years, two children attended kindergarten in our local "English only" school district. They entered kindergarten as readers and writers of Spanish and English, with a confidence that drove new learning. My view of thinking about literacy is that it is a life-spanning process; not a set of skills and strategies packaged for a particular audience,or grade level. I am preparing to present for the NCTE Summer Institute and the Parents as Teachers National Conference in November, marrying reseach with the home vigenettes to challenge educators. I don't want to be viewed as someone creating another wheel for a bus that already has too many. Because my own focus is person-to-person networking, I can't thank you enough for all you do to give access to practical resources! As I continue on this journey, I am cautiously proceeding around the common obstacles of loose articulation, chronic underfunding and competition with established programs for time, people, space, information, and technology. My focus is set on my families. I am relentless about discovering what can be done based on relationships and home visits; accomplishments that can not be realized any other way. I am carefully evaluating potential resources, trying to ensure that when resources are granted to this work, someone else's sacred cow does not starve. I am stubborn about focusing my relationships on the individual rather than the institutional level. As I communicate about my work, my mantra to myself is, "Why do we need this?" I seek to identify compelling answers without sending the message that someone or some institution has screwed up. I'm not trying to fix something. I'm trying to create opportunity. One of my goals is to keep my efforts as informal and flexible as possible. At the end of the day, I ask myself, "Is this worth doing?" and the families and I shout out, "YES!" Connie M. Montgomery, Ph.D.

Love this quote “When it

Love this quote “When it comes to a breakfast of ham and eggs, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed.” As long as there is parent participation then at least there is hope, too many parents do not participate enough in their child's education and leave it up to the schools

I know exactly what you mean!

I know exactly what you mean! Parents can have input, but they shouldnt make demands. Everyone should be respectful, and I have seen first hand how some are just plain hostile to their teachers, the administration and to other parents who volunteer there time.

Larry, you've identified the

Larry, you've identified the biggest difference between two levels of schooling - early childhood and K-12: K-12 carries out family involvement (sometimes!) and early childhood educators must ENGAGE families in order to set children on a path to success. See more about this at www.deb-ed.com
Thank you!

The sad truth of the matter

The sad truth of the matter is that most school merely engage parents particularly for the satisfaction of the school's aims. we tend to fear situations where parents have meaningful engagement sine the believe is that as teachers we have the knowledge so parents need to follow our lead. which of course is wrong