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 the 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 on how to productively listen to feedback from parents, but also training on how not to slip back into the role of the 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.

A Matter of Accountability

Alternative education programs all hold students accountable for learning, but who holds to account those adults and institutions who, to varying degrees, failed the student?

We practitioners in the field of helping at-risk learners succeed have to accept that one of our many hats is that of the advocate. However uncomfortable the role and however sensitive the topic, we have to spell out to policymakers why alternative ed programs cannot be allowed to become dumping grounds for hard-to-reach, hard-to-teach students. Where do we begin to assert influence on the process that leads to placement in an alternative program?

The Tough Talk

Alternative programs are, by their very nature, dependent upon those schools from which come our students. No students, no justification for the program is a common, though shortsighted view held by some policymakers with oversight of regular education schools as well as at-risk programs.

Hoping that these same policymakers seek out the input from alt-ed teachers and program directors, it’s our responsibility to help shape a process that ultimately serves the student we see enrolled in our programs. In practice, however, this involves conveying uncomfortable truths to, at times, those who’ve played a role in creating the cracks through which our students have fallen. Combining diplomacy and accountability can be accomplished through collaboration, specifically through the creation of a checklist to which all parties pledge their fidelity.

Intervention Comes Before Identification

One of, if not the first intervention an at-risk student receives should not be placement in an alternative education program. The possible exception may be the assignment in lieu of expulsion for a single behavioral incident of a serious nature. But even in such cases, it’s likely that responsible adults saw a lack of coping skills, or worse, unreported bullying of the student that contributed to the critical event.  Under any of these circumstances, it should be the responsibility of the student’s school of record to determine the likely underlying causes, however bad a light might be shone on that institution.

A record of attempted, good-faith interventions should always accompany any request for placement of a student into an alternative education program. Failure to have in place such interventions shouldn’t be an acceptable excuse for removing a student from his or her regular school. Neither should be a lack of adequate documentation about any attempt to correct a perceived shortcoming of a student.

Hand-in-hand with a record of interventions should be both up-to-date testing data, appropriate IEP of 504 Plan information and summaries of progress in obtaining written goals.

Giving Teeth to the Process

Too often, inappropriate identification and subsequent placement of a student into an alt ed program stem from a fatal flaw in any well-intended process. If the program director is not given an unequivocal, conditional veto over a placement recommendation, further corruption of the process is likely. By conditional, I’m speaking of rejecting a recommendation for failure to adequately document interventions or provide necessary evaluative data for the student.

Finally, in the case of a program rejection of a recommendation, time is of the essence in securing the documentation or reassigning the student to his or her original school. The most unavoidable failure adults can deliver to a student is to delay the continuation of learning because of neglect on the part of those charged with helping the student.