Turning the tables on parent-teacher conferences

Turning the tables on parent-teacher conferences

In the fad-crazed world of k-12 education, there is one ubiquitous practice that remains steadfast amid a changing world. That, of course, is the problem.

What if schools began each year by holding parent-teacher conferences? Taking this further, what if the parent or guardian were recognized as the expert on his or her own child, while the teacher assumed the role of enthusiastic learner? Wouldn’t student achievement be improved, perhaps dramatically, if each teacher knew at the start of the year how a student best learns, what motivates him or her and what strengths could be supported by thoughtful instruction practices?

Turning the tables on parent-teacher conferences is embarrassingly long overdue. Here’s how, and why, this arcane and self-defeating institution needs to evolve and do so with a committed sense of urgency.

Research on student achievement

Being up front, there exists today no large body of validated research supporting any specific change in parent-teacher conferences. However, after decades of the practice, no field of studies exists remotely explaining why the tradition was ever seen as worthy of time invested. Research does exist, though, that makes clear what influences work best in education.

Educational researcher John Hattie is internationally recognized as having produced not only a ranking of practices that work, but a measured accounting of which of these work significantly better than most. Among the top ten, at the far end of the statistical curve, feedback – meaning feedback to the teacher – appears. By comparison, class size, socio-economic status, teacher subject matter knowledge and motivation are all of significantly lesser value.


In simplified terms, the more information a teacher receives about what a student knows, what he or she needs to acquire new skills and how best to instruct each student to exceed each new accomplishment, the greater the achievement.

Ask the experts

Consider this. At the elementary level, a student’s teacher sees that pupil roughly six hours each day for about 180 days during one year. The parents or guardians, for the most part, live with that student the balance of the time. By the time that child reaches middle school, the interaction between by any one of his or her teachers drops from 30 hours a week during the school year to five. However, at the beginning of each school year, the teacher usually has no direct prior knowledge or understanding of the student. That’s both a problem, but also an opportunity.

Think about it! For generations we’ve arrogantly assumed that those with a handful of hours in the same room with a child, know more about the learning needs of a student than do the persons who taught them to walk, speak, use the potty and scores of other fundamental lessons. By the time parent-teacher conferences are held at mid-semester, instructional issues resulting in poor performance and/or behavior are months old. That student-teacher relationship, recognized by educational researchers as among the top aspects of superior teaching, is damaged in many cases, needlessly so because of a tradition possessing no rational basis of existence.

At long last, define a measurable outcome

If you’d like to know the priorities of any organization, find out what it is that body painstakingly tracks. If it’s not tracked, it’s not important. With this in mind, have you ever heard of a state education department requiring district data on family participation at parent-teacher conferences? Of course many schools do ask teachers for numbers of parents who attended conferences, but have those changes driven substantive change? I think you know the answer. The fact remains what should be obvious as unacceptably low participation, particularly in schools located in economically distressed neighborhoods, is routinely accepted.

Setting as a minimal goal 90 percent family participation at conferences, even at the high school level, is attainable. Participation must be accurately tracked by a valid accounting method in order to produce measurable outcomes. Currently, the outcomes beyond participation are non-existent. Curriculum and instruction seldom, if ever, are driven by feedback gained by conferences. That’s a problem.

Redirect the actors

Under the best of circumstances, change, even if embraced, involves a lead time of at least a full year. This is largely due to the need for extensive in-service training for teachers and a dynamic campaign beyond the school in the community served. For one, teachers will need not only instruction in how to productively listen to feedback from parents, but also training on how not to slip back into the role of expert during a parent meeting. But then there’s an even bigger problem to overcome, one demanding not only time, but trust.

Parents who’ve been intimidated, even humiliated, by the traditional parent-teacher conference experience don’t trust schools to do the right thing. After all, we’ve subjected whole communities to a practice underscoring a pervasive contempt of parent/guardian value. Nothing short of a well-executed campaign aimed at patiently restoring trust will produce acceptable results.

Well before the start of any transition in how parent-teacher conferences are conducted, the word needs to go out on no less than a weekly basis that parent/guardian feedback is highly valued. Nothing short of a public mea culpa will even begin to earn back a trust systematically thrown away for more than a half-century.

The observable, measurable outcome of this campaign is to achieve that 90 percent level of family participation, meaning active, informative contribution that produces actionable feedback resulting in much greater student achievement than ever before.

Putting it all together

Location! Location! Location!

This wise response to the question of what matters most in real estate has applications for parent-teacher conferences in general, and gaining community trust and actionable feedback, specifically.

Holding a majority of conferences not in classrooms, but in locations within the communities ostensibly served by the school district is an indispensable component of turning the tables on parent-teacher conferences. The implications should be obvious. Lip service about change – and that’s what most families will initially conclude when they hear from school officials about a desire to value parent feedback – will always be trumped by action in the public’s eye.

Finally, there’s no question that evolving from an accepted tradition to an ambitious level of professionalism poses a myriad of logistical challenges. Again, anything worth doing is worth doing well, and implementing the changes I suggest, (and necessity demands), is hardly comparable to planting a pair of flags on Mount Suribachi. The key is to identify ways to accomplish a worthy goal, not generate excuses supporting the status quo.

Turning the tables on parent-teacher conferences is a must-win challenge for public schools if they expect to remain relevant in these times of unprecedented changes in our communities. Demanding a sense of urgency in implementing the fleeting opportunity is the duty of all who also demand real progress in student achievement.


7 responses to “Turning the tables on parent-teacher conferences”

  1. Kathleen Zimmer-Anderson Avatar
    Kathleen Zimmer-Anderson

    This is a pretty cool idea. It would really help parents feel more involved at the secondary level, something that I think is sorely needed. It’s been eye-opening to me, as a parent of a two daughters and a former high school history/geography teacher, how much things change between the elementary grades and the middle and high school grades — there were so many opportunities to come in and help out if my schedule allowed (which it often didn’t) and to interact with the teachers when my girls were in grade school, but this was completely cutoff by the time they entered 7th grade. Opening up the doors at the start of the year, inviting us parents to be part of the conversation about our kids’ education from the get-go would be refreshing and would help parents feel like they have a role to play.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kathleen!
      Think of the prior knowledge teachers could gain about students before they began making instructional decisions!
      We hear endless lip service about teaching to the student’s learning profile or style, however I can’t accept that those who actually understand what this means would blindly plan to continue parent-teacher conferences after problems have developed and opportunities have been lost.

  2. Mark, I think this topic definitely deserves more attention. When I was a teacher, we made some effort to reach out to parents, but didn’t go much beyond having an open house in the first month and doing a conference night a few months after that. If parents couldn’t make that, I’m sure there was some note in some newsletter telling them they could always contact us for a one-on-one conference, but few, if any, families actually took us up on the offer. The general consensus seemed to be that the parents just didn’t care enough to attend (even though we were dealing with a low-income population and most of us should have known better!).

    Now that I’m a parent of three elementary students, I have a different perspective. It takes an overwhelming amount of energy and focus and time to keep up with their schooling. I have no idea how someone with less time and more stress is able to do it. As for trust in teachers, I am definitely starting to understand how uneven that can be for many parents. Within the first month of school, I start to get a sense for which teachers are interested in my kids, and which ones aren’t. It makes a huge difference.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that yes, schools need to make more of an effort to fine-tune their outreach to parents. The ones who aren’t attending conferences probably want to, but need alternate times or locations — and probably childcare as well.

    Thanks for bringing up an important topic!

    1. Thanks for posting a reply, Jennifer!
      For decades parents have been giving schools feedback about their children, their own impossible schedules and the genuine desire to play a role in the school community. For those same decades, schools have been filtering out any feedback that suggests change. Not surprisingly, valuable data that could drive achievement is lost as well as the trust schools claim to want from parents.

  3. Great article, Mark! I like the concept.

  4. Steve Martin Avatar
    Steve Martin

    I never thought about it like this! Good idea! Great article! Also, Mark, wonderful opinion post in the Palladium-Item! Good work, sir!

    1. Thanks for the comments, Steve!