Educators have traditionally viewed parent-teacher conferences in one of two ways: sporadic opportunities to involve parents in their child’s learning or dreary formalities required when a child’s behavior or performance has been less than satisfactory.
Today these conferences are becoming more integrated into school life as research reveals how pivotal parents’ ongoing participation is for their child’s academic performance. “The latest research shows that the most important factor in students doing well in school is parental involvement. Collaboration between parents, teachers, and the student is critical,” says parent involvement expert Anne Henderson, a senior consultant at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. “And it’s not just about keeping parents informed about grades and behavior, but it’s about both sides providing information beyond that.”
She says parents and teachers should also discuss students’ individual characteristics, such as learning style, strengths, interests, and personal and family issues. Most important, they should work on a plan for the student that will involve ongoing collaboration among all three parties.
Recent research shows that communication between educators and parents can raise a student’s math and reading performance by 40 to 50 percent, notes Henderson, author of Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family/School Partnerships. She has analyzed more than 65 studies on parent engagement.
In addition, cultural and technological changes have opened the door to continual engagement between families and educators, experts say. Dean Fusto, president and head of school at Brandon Hill School (Georgia), often uses the term “family conferences” to include the many students who don’t come from families with traditional parental roles. Family composition isn’t all that’s changed; family work schedules have become more packed, and technology has helped schools adapt to new time constraints.
In light of these trends, many schools are embracing more parent and family contact in a variety of forums and more student involvement in the process.“I want parents to be in the building and be involved,” says Fusto. “I’m always going to expect the best from conferences and encourage people here to make the most out of them. That is the important thinking today.”
Technology: A Game Changer
Technology is upending the traditional parent-teacher conference, says Lisa Fulton, a school counselor at Elco Middle School in Myerstown, Pennsylvania, and the president of the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association. In her school, parents can email or even text teachers and use the web to schedule conferences.
Team conferences can be hosted via Skype, says Russell Sabella, a counseling professor and past president of the American School Counselors Association. Schools value the tool that translates the conversation into several languages.
Technology also aids in the conference follow-up, says Fusto. Everyone can access class expectations or student homework logs online, and teachers can email regular reports about a student’s progress for review by parents, a counselor, or an administrator. Sometimes entire follow-up meetings can take place via email, where participants can adjust strategy and set new goals.
At the GEMS schools, with 87 schools internationally focusing on technology and independent learning, an e-portfolio of student work becomes a conference tool. Teachers and students contribute to an e-portfolio, which extends through a student’s school career, and can include everything from assessments and class assignments to pictures, multimedia projects, and student reflections.
“There is no better way to capture the richness of what our students are capable of producing,” says Eila Kvaran, primary years’ coordinator at GEMS World Academy Chicago. “It builds from year to year and is a living document for families to see growth over the course of a child’s learning.”
A Variety of Formats
Today’s conferences can be set up in several ways: a single time period when teachers make themselves available to meet with any parents, regular office hours for parents to drop by, scheduled meetings between a parent and a single teacher, or a team of teachers meeting with a parent and student, says Sabella.
The lone school-wide parent-teacher event is good for introductions, a basic review of expectations, and early student performance, he says. While teachers are sometimes available for brief, private discussions with parents, this forum doesn’t allow time for in-depth discussions of student effort — or for parents to fully express their concerns or share information about their child.
At AltSchool, a network of Pre-K–8 schools located in California and New York and soon in Chicago, teachers meet with parents three times each year, first in October to plan, and then again in January and mid-May to review student work, says Simmi Bindra, director of schools.
“Student reflection is key — not just, ‘What did you learn?’ but ‘What did you learn about yourself?’” Bindra says.
Indeed, AltSchool takes a multifaceted approach to conferences. The school has added teacher office hours; these are specific days and times after school when teachers are available for parents to drop by to meet. The school also distributes a parent survey online that gives families ongoing opportunities to review teacher and school performance.
In Ohio, Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy holds an evening event in the fall when all parents can sign up to meet teachers in 10-minute time slots. The school then schedules two other conferences during the year.
“Students fill out a questionnaire before the conference in class that primes the student for the conference,” explains Dean Nicholas, principal of the upper school. “Then the student talks through his/her performance and sets goals for the next quarter.”
GEMS World Academy – Chicago provides a parent lounge year round where parents and teachers can informally communicate face-to-face and share details about a student’s performance, especially during drop-off and pick-up times. Administrators and some teachers are available there every day, Kvaran says. While the lounge is an open space, private conversations may be scheduled. The format makes the staff accessible in an era when parents and school staff are busy and can easily let communication slip, she adds.
“Parent engagement is so important to us; we want to make it as easy as possible for parents to communicate,” Kvaran says. “It helps us and it helps them and it is critical for the student.”
How to Proceed
Regardless of the format your school uses, Sabella offers three steps to best leverage the parent-teacher conference for a student’s success.
1. Preparation. Teachers need more than grades; they need to share impressions on students’ engagement levels, social skills, and learning styles. For example, at Aspen Academy in Greenwood Village, Colorado, a pre-K-8 school serving about 400 students, teachers complete and update a 10-page “Personalized Instruction Profile.”
The profile includes the teacher’s thoughts about a particular student’s performance shortly after the school year begins. It also includes information gathered from the student, teacher, and parent about the student’s learning style, personal and academic interests, writing and reading skills, “grit score” on persistence, and results on the Clifton StrengthsFinder, which highlights one’s strengths. Parents receive a copy before the first parent-teacher meeting.
2. Process. The meeting should have a goal-based agenda with time for everyone to participate, Sabella says. Parents can express concerns, teachers can reflect on what they see, and the student can thoughtfully discuss his or her progress and struggles, says Joyce Epstein, director of Johns Hopkins National Network of Partnership Schools.
Conferences are increasingly led by students in which they summarize their work via PowerPoint or Prezi, she says. (Whether to allow student-led conferences was the subject of a New York Times “Room for Debate” feature this past summer.)
The meeting’s tone is crucial, too, says Ryan Pagotto, associate head of school at Blair Academy in Blairstown, New Jersey. “It’s a balance of empathy and honesty.”
3. Follow up. Meetings are most effective when teacher, student, and parent are all held accountable, Sabella says.
“As each member of the conference leaves the meeting, they are confirmed in their role,” Aspen Academy founder Kristine Scala says about important first meetings at the school. “Responsibility and relationships are used to ensure that each student knows and is affirmed in their value and is excited and committed to the journey.”