In the face of unprecedented disengagement in school, uneven academic recovery since the pandemic, and increasing parental dissatisfaction with public education, strong family engagement provides an invaluable opportunity to put educators and parents on the same page—in support of their children’s long-term success.

The good news is that there’s a general consensus among parents and educators that family engagement matters. Defined broadly as a shared responsibility between families, schools, and communities to actively support children’s learning, family engagement is associated with stronger social-emotional development, higher school attendance, and better academic outcomes for students of all ages. And, research consistently finds that high parental academic expectations are linked to stronger student achievement.

Yet, evidence from a recent survey of U.S. K-12 educators finds that the majority of teachers believe families aren’t doing enough to help their children with schoolwork and ensure that their children attend school regularly. At the same time, levels of chronic absenteeism have doubled since before the start of the pandemic, with 26 percent of students missing more than 10 percent of school days during the 2022-23 academic year.

Right now, perhaps more than ever, there is a clear need to identify effective approaches to strengthen family-school partnerships, starting with investments in evidence-based practices and solutions that can yield benefits for students, educators, and parents.

Across portfolios, Overdeck Family Foundation is prioritizing three types of family engagement evidence to guide our decision-making for investments in this space:

1. Families as teachers: strengthening learning at home in early childhood and elementary school

Family members are children’s first teachers, introducing them to the storytelling, building, and cooking activities that are often their first lessons in literacy and math. Numerous studies have found that parents’ active promotion of a cognitively stimulating home learning environment is the family engagement practice most predictive of children’s academic skills in Pre-K and elementary school. There’s further evidence linking parents’ direct teaching of language, literacy, and math skills to better learning outcomes across these domains during the early years of schooling.

Yet, research also points to significant socioeconomic disparities in children’s at-home learning experiences, largely due to differences in financial resources and time that higher- and lower-income families have to provide these supports. Data from a national sample of kindergarteners show that 94 percent of parents in the top 10 percent of the income distribution read to their children at least three times per week, compared to 75 percent of parents in the bottom 10 percent of the income distribution. Other work has documented increases in socioeconomic status (SES)-based gaps in reading and telling stories to children and teaching letters, words, and numbers, with the highest-SES families pulling away from their middle- and lower-SES counterparts over time.

Investments in at-home learning, however, may help address these disparities. For example, there is robust meta-analytic evidence finding that at-home learning interventions increase the amount of time parents spend reading to their children and can also boost children’s early literacy skills. And, a recent experiment done by researchers at the University of Chicago found that children who received at-home digital math activities coupled with weekly text message reminders to parents saw improvements in early math skills, with impacts sustained six months after the intervention ended. Even light touch reminders to parents about the importance of at-home literacy activities have the potential to promote small improvements in children’s learning.

Ensuring that families have access to these interventions is critical. Based on the evidence, our Early Impact and Inspired Minds portfolios have invested in organizations that aim to strengthen at-home learning. These include:

  • Waterford Upstart, an in-home, online school readiness program for four-year-olds that provides parent coaching to improve learning for 38,000 kids annually;
  • Raising A Reader, an organization that supports families of children ages zero to eight to develop literacy skills through shared reading, reaching 140,000 kids annually;
  • Springboard Collaborative, a family engagement program that helps teachers and families work together to help children read on grade level, reaching 30,000 students annually;
  • EiE, the curricula division of the Museum of Science, Boston, which has reached over 19,000 caregivers and children this year with resources designed to build children’s confidence, collaborative problem-solving skills, and understanding of STEM disciplines; and
  • PBS SoCal, part of the Public Media Group of Southern California, which provides broadcast content focused on family math concepts to more than three million children and two million parents, while also engaging over 3,800 caregivers in workshops and events that aim to increase math confidence and skills.
Young girl sits at computer

Courtesy of

2. Families as partners: strengthening relationships and information exchange between families and educators

As children age, research shows that the role of parents shifts from being a child’s primary teacher to being a partner to their child’s teacher. Parents who monitor their children’s school work and hold high academic expectations tend to see their children perform better in school. Other research has found associations between parents’ knowledge of their children’s school work and their grades with later educational attainment. There is additional meta-analytic evidence linking parental involvement in adolescence to academic achievement, and findings that suggest family-school partnerships and high-quality relationships between parents and teachers are associated with better academic outcomes, particularly for older students.

Family engagement in school, however, starts to decline when children transition to middle school, highlighting the need for targeted investments during this time. To this end, burgeoning research has begun to identify the value of enhancing the way parents and educators communicate in order to share real-time, bidirectional information about children. A review of 23 studies with comparison groups found that such approaches do have moderately sized effects—about a quarter of a standard deviation—on parent-teacher relationship quality and communication.

Further rigorous evidence has found that these approaches can improve outcomes for students as well. For instance, a randomized controlled trial recently found that an automated text-messaging approach to share weekly information with parents about their middle and high school students’ missed assignments, grades, and class absences reduced course failures by 28 percent and increased class attendance by 12 percent, with larger effects for below-median GPA students. And although school district early warning systems still do not appear to boost achievement, there is recent experimental evidence highlighting a positive impact on student attendance.

Though potentially effective for supporting educator-parent partnerships, these types of programs have yet to be broadly scaled. Overdeck Family Foundation has worked to address this need by investing in organizations that focus on building stronger school-home connections:

  • TalkingPoints, an artificial intelligence-powered two-way communication platform that helps educators communicate with families in more than 150 languages, reaching four million children annually;
  • Family Engagement Lab (FASTalk), a two-way communication platform aligned to high-quality curricula, reaching 50,000 students annually;
  • ParentCorps, an enhancement to Pre-K for educators, families, and students, which builds authentic home-school connections and supports children’s social-emotional well-being;
  • Parent Teacher Home Visits, a family engagement model designed to build trusting home-school partnerships through teacher home visits, reaching an estimated 35,000 families;
  • Learning Heroes, which runs local and national Go Beyond Grades public awareness campaigns to increase parental awareness of children’s learning loss and improve educator capacity to partner with families;
  • National PTA, an advocacy organization for family engagement, which uplifts best practices and convenes stakeholders to support whole child learning; and
  • Thrive Grants through Cambiar Education, which fund solutions that provide parents and caregivers with easy-to-obtain, meaningful, and actionable information on their children’s learning and development.

Courtesy of Parent Teacher Home Visits

3. Connecting with families where they are

Children continue to spend a significant amount of time in settings other than their homes and schools, and recent definitions of family engagement have sought to incorporate communities as part of a broader family engagement strategy. By forming partnerships with community-based organizations, efforts to engage families in their children’s education can be more impactful. For example, a large body of research conducted by researchers at NYU found that parent coaching interventions, delivered in partnership with pediatric providers and nonprofit organizations, can increase parents’ cognitively stimulating practices and promote better academic and social-emotional outcomes for children, with particularly large benefits for children of mothers experiencing depression or mental health challenges themselves. Other research has found that connecting with parents in community-based settings prior to the start of Pre-K can increase universal screening, improve needed access to early intervention supports, and promote better health and developmental outcomes for children.

Again, implementing approaches to scale these evidence-based practices is key. Overdeck Family Foundation has made investments in the following organizations to address this need:

  • Reach Out and Read, which integrates early relational health and literacy best practices into standard pediatric visits, reaching 4.2 million kids annually;
  • EdNavigator, a nonprofit that partners with healthcare providers to help families navigate early intervention services, school enrollment, academic support, and special education referrals, reaching more than 500 children and their families; and
  • Robin Hood Fund for Early Learning (FUEL), which aims to support early language and social-emotional development for zero- to three-year-olds living in poverty in New York City by building public-private partnerships that improve core city services, reaching more than 50,000 children.
Medical professional holds baby in doctor's office

Courtesy of Reach Out and Read

Our commitment

There continues to be growing evidence that family engagement is critical to student success, especially for our youngest learners. That’s why we’re excited to support both early stage and established organizations as they continue to innovate and scale evidence-based family engagement approaches designed to strengthen children’s home learning environments, home-school communication and relationships, and community support for families. We’re further committed to investing in rigorous evaluations of these approaches to help districts, policymakers, and funders make evidence-based decisions when it comes to bringing the most effective family engagement programs into their own communities and nationwide.


Thank you to Carly Roberts, Katie Lim, Emma Banay, Lina Eroh, and Brittany Sullivan for your contributions to this post.

Header image courtesy of Robin Hood Fund for Early Learning