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October 16, 2015
Reimagining the Parent-Teacher Conference
Heather B. Weiss
It’s a fall scene, as familiar as the vibrant yellow school buses that reappear and dot the roadways this time of year: a parent and teacher sit across from each other, knees bunched up against a desk that is just a little too small. They talk for their allotted 15-minute slot, quickly discussing goals, needs, and observations. While the teacher tries to cram in all of the important information, the parent takes in as much as possible, attempting to make sense of the data and jargon. Afterward, each retreats to their respective space only to meet again in six months, if at all. As the director of the Harvard Family Research Project for the past 30 years, and as a parent, I know that while the parent-teacher conference can be a time of excitement, it can also be a time of stress and anxiety. Is there a better way?
Research from the last five years suggests that the traditional parent teacher conference, that yearly ritual, is a necessary but insufficient model of sharing a student’s strengths and challenges.1 Necessary, because parents and teachers need to jointly share information about a student’s progress and plan future goals and actions, but insufficient because teachers and families need to build partnerships to support learning over time. True family engagement is not a single event. It is a shared responsibility in which regular two-way communication insures that the student is on track to meet grade level requirements. It is founded on trust and mutual respect and acknowledges that all families have the goals, values, and skills to help their children succeed from preschool through high school, and beyond.
Over the years, we have seen a number of interesting trends in districts throughout the country that reimagine the parent-teacher conference as a key building block for ongoing family engagement. One trend is schools starting meaningful conversations with families even before school starts. For example, here in Boston, through an initiative called Countdown to Kindergarten, the Boston Children’s Museum hosts an annual kindergarten celebration where children and families can take a bus ride to the museum, talk with teachers who circulate the classroom, and get information from district staff about kindergarten enrollment and preparation.
A second trend we see that reimagines the parent-teacher conference is schools focusing on sharing both student and classroom data, deepening the conversation on the child’s progress. The Academic Parent Teacher Team model, for example, brings parents and teachers together during three group meetings over the school year. Families acquire information about what and how their children are learning, data about classroom performance, and concrete activities -- some of which are suggested by fellow parents --that they can do at home to help their child meet 60-day academic goals. Research shows that this extended form of the parent-teacher conference has informed and improved the ways parents help their children at home, strengthened the relationship between parents and teachers, and increased student academic performance.2
A third trend we see is one of schools and families continuing the dialogue beyond the parent-teacher conference by leveraging technology. A recent study by Matthew Kraft and Todd Rogers found that high school students in a credit-recovery summer school program, whose parents received short, individualized messages from their teacher on a weekly basis, were more likely to receive credit towards graduation compared to students whose parents did not receive messages.3 Another program, Message from Me in Pittsburgh, allows preschool children to send photos, audio messages, or emails to their families, communicating about their day via technology kiosks placed in early childhood classrooms. Through the messages, families have a clearer idea of what has transpired over the day and can ask specific questions later at home, combating the challenge of, “What did you do today?” “Nothing,” or, “I don’t know. I forget.” For families whose primary language is not English, this can be an especially effective way to share concrete information so they can follow-up in the home, a practice that is linked with school success.
A final trend is that meaningful communication is happening outside the school. Home visits, for example, are an opportunity for families and teachers to get to know one another on the families’ turf. Home visits are often held twice a year and in some cases, supplemented by family dinners. Through these visits, teachers gain valuable insights into the child’s home and family, learn about the family’s goals and values, and the ways the family supports student learning at home, in school, and in the community. Families get to know the teacher and find out about the child’s learning goals in a more informal way. The visits signal that the school and teachers welcome families and this starts building the trust that enables families and teachers to work together on behalf of the child. Though these actions appear simple, home visits have been linked to improved student attendance, behavior, and test scores.
The parent-teacher conference is likely to be more meaningful and less scary and stressful when families and teachers see it as part of an ongoing conversation throughout the year, one grounded in all kinds of data about student learning and progress. The conversation can also include the ways afterschool and other community enrichment programs can build on the child’s interests and thereby support school learning. No matter which side of the desk you happen to sit, reimagine the parent-teacher conference as one step in a process that builds and fortifies the parent-teacher relationship in support of children’s learning and development over the course of their school career.
1 Harvard Family Research Project. (n.d.). Family involvement bibliographies. Retrieved from http://www.hfrp.org/publications-resources/publications-series/family-involvement-bibliographies
2 WestEd. (2013). Parents as partners in student achievement. R & D Alert, 14 (1). Retrieved from http://www.wested.org/wp-content/files_mf/1377717512article_parentsaspartners_2013.pdf
3 Kraft M. & Rogers T. (2015). The underutilized potential of teacher-to-parent communication: Evidence from a field experiment. Economics of Education Review, 47, 49-63. doi:10.1016/j.econedurev.2015.04.001
Heather B. Weiss is the founder and director of Harvard Family Research Project.