describing what she sees as shortcomings in NCLB's family-involvement provisions.
And when districts and schools are successful in working with parents, it's often the result of determined groups of parents and administrators working in isolation, she said.
"You see pockets of good work in districts, in certain schools, but it's not systematic," Ms. Mapp said.
Moreover, districts' adherence to the federal law's requirements is uneven at best, said Zollie Stevenson Jr., a former director of student achievement and school accountability programs at the U.S. Department of Education. Meeting the law's mandates for parental involvement has been one of school systems' worst areas of noncompliance on NCLB Title I policy, said Mr. Stevenson, who is now an associate professor of educational administration and policy at Howard University, in Washington.
For years, parent engagement has been undermined by tensions between parents and school administrators, some of whom are inclined to shut families out of decisions over curriculum or school activities—or who don't know how to bring them into the fold, said Arnold F. Fege, the director of public engagement and advocacy for the Public Education Network, in Washington.
While some administrators are committed to accepting ideas and criticism from families, others "are not honest in involving parents," said Mr. Fege, whose organization is a network of community-based groups that seeks to improve schools and increase college access, particularly in disadvantaged school districts.
The Obama administration has proposed increasing the 1 percent Title I set-aside requirement to 2 percent, which it argues would encourage districts to take bolder steps to engage parents. (Additionally, the administration added parent and family engagement as an "absolute priority" in a recent round of its Investing in Innovation competition, noting that while it is a "critical component of student success," there are "too few models with evidence of effectiveness.")
Not everyone agrees with increasing the set-aside. The American Association of School Administrators supports strong family engagement but worries that raising the set-aside is "prescriptive and ties the hands of superintendents," said Noelle M. Ellerson, the AASA's assistant director for policy analysis and advocacy.
Ms. Ellerson said the AASA agrees that the effectiveness of family-engagement strategies varies by district. But she attributes that inconsistency partly to pressures administrators face to comply with myriad mandates in the federal law, and to the mixed responses that schools get when they try to engage parents.
The federal mandates can seem "like a one-way street," she added. "The requirements are placed all on the schools."
Some organizations are trying to help school leaders engage parents in creative and focused ways.
Joyce Epstein, the director of Johns Hopkins' National Network of Partnership Schools, is the author of a widely referenced document that describes "six types of involvement," or ways that teachers, principals, parents, and others can engage families and communities in schools, using an array of strategies rather than relying on any single approach. The network also publishes promising practices used in districts and schools to promote community and family engagement.
Schools that are serious about promoting parent involvement work around barriers that prevent it, said Mr. Sheldon of Johns Hopkins. Many schools, for instance, invite parents to come to school to talk to students about their careers—only to find that work schedules prevent many adults from attending. Schools can overcome those conflicts by asking parents to take photos at their jobs and have their children bring them to school, so that they can be displayed for classroom discussions, he said.
Engagement sometimes means "providing opportunities for parents to contribute, without necessarily being at the school," Mr. Sheldon said.
Some districts try to reach out to parents in many different settings.
The Boston school system has assigned "family and community outreach coordinators" in schools throughout the 57,000-student district, who seek to strengthen parents' ties with schools and their understanding of their academic and other goals.
Margarita "Ale" Hernandez, a coordinator at Boston's Warren-Prescott K-8 School, juggles a number of duties, which include helping students and families apply for high school, and sitting with parents and translating parent-teacher conferences and meetings over special education services into Spanish, a language in which she's fluent.
"Time is really an issue for these parents," said Ms. Hernandez, noting that many of those adults work more than one job. And if they don't get help with English, "it's hard for them to support their kids academically," she said. "They get frustrated, and it doesn't work."
Boston also has established a "Parent University," designed to help mothers and fathers with a variety of skills, which include academic-content knowledge and overall parenting skills. Those sessions are held throughout the year. The school system arranges child care and meals for parents during sessions at the university, which like coordinators' positions are supported through Title I money.
When it was launched three years ago, the university drew 500 parents, and more than 2,400 have attended this year.
Shateara Battle has taken part for three years. In one class, the 24-year-old mother got tips on how to calm her 1st grade son and help him refocus on homework when it frustrates him. Taking him outside for a short walk helps.
But Ms. Battle, who works in a hospital, says the most valuable class focused on building her understanding of her son's math curriculum, which initially confused her because it was starkly different from the model she learned in school.
"It's hard to help your child with math," she said, when "even if you get the same answer, they're learning it a different way."
Since attending the classes, Ms. Battle has also become more confident questioning teachers about the pace and content of academic studies in various subjects.
"I was highly involved before, but now I'm more knowledgeable," she said. Sometimes, when she's asked a teacher about a lesson, "they look at me and say, 'How did you know that?' "