Natural Enemies

How to improve the dreaded parent-teacher conference.

Last month, a Texas legislator came up with the radical proposal to make a skipped parent-teacher conference a misdemeanor offense. The law would fine parents $500 if they don’t show up and squeeze themselves into those kid-sized chairs! A state education association gently suggested that reporting parents to the police may not be the best way to encourage their involvement. Teachers pointed out that some parents who are in the country illegally are already afraid of the authority a school represents. That’s one big factor in why they don’t attend in the first place.

All good reasons for this bill to go nowhere. But what about the underlying premise: the usefulness of the traditional parent-teacher conference. More than 100 million of them take place each year, from pre-kindergarten through high school. Are we getting what we should out of this time and effort? Probably not—perhaps because we don’t invite the kids we’re discussing to come along. If we did, the research shows, more parents would probably show up, too.

The parent-teacher conference became a staple of the school year about 50 years ago. In most schools, the basic arrangement probably hasn’t changed much since. Parents sit down with their child’s teacher, go through a portfolio of the kid’s work (if they’re lucky), force out a few questions, and leave feeling somewhat enlightened or somewhat downcast. I’ve gone to a few great conferences that taught me something about one or the other of my sons and made me feel he was in excellent hands—better hands than mine. Much of the time, though, I approach parent-teacher conferences with overheated anticipation (we get to talk about my kid—hooray!) and leave with a sense of letdown. The teacher isn’t dead wrong, just slightly off, and I wonder if she hasn’t quite sorted out one of my sons from the other brown-eyed Jewish kids in the class.

In her 2003 book about parent-teacher meetings, The Essential Conversation, Harvard sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot warns against conferences that feel generic. To avert that trust-killer, she told the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, teachers have to talk about children in “idiosyncratic, individual terms” so that parents “recognize ‘Oh, yeah, that’s my kid.’ ” And parents, for their part, have to ask specific questions and tell stories about their children, rather than falling back on the old “Well, how’s he doing?”

Lawrence-Lightfoot borrows from 1930s sociologist Willard Waller in describing parents and teachers as “natural enemies.” Parents zoom in on their own child. When they ask teachers to be “fair,” they’re really looking for special consideration for their kid. Teachers, on the other hand, have to treat each child as an individual while at the same time attending to the class as a whole. To them, “fair” means treating kids as equals and judging them by the same standards.

The parent-teacher conference can serve to reinforce the enmity, especially if it takes parents back to their own miserable school days. (Those little chairs are nothing if not infantilizing.) The conference can also cut through the adversarial posturing—especially, perhaps, if it takes the form of a three-way conversation: teacher, parent, and kid. Lawrence-Lightfoot thinks this should be the rule, not the exception. And not just for older students. She has seen 6-year-olds talk about themselves at a conference with “insight and discernment.”

I ran this idea by my sister, a doctoral student in education at the University of Pennsylvania who taught for five years at a public school in the Bronx and at a charter school in Los Angeles. She liked it. From a teacher’s perspective, conferences are useful because they push you to reflect on each kid and her schoolwork. To go through a child’s portfolio with her, and talk together about her academic progress and behavior, would be all the more meaningful. And if the teacher needs the parents’ help with an unruly child, “It’s definitely better for the student to be there,” my sister said. There’s no confusion about who’s saying what. Plus, the only people who know what the child is like both at school and at home are present, not absent.

One study of four schools with conferences that included students, by Diana Hiatt-Michael of Pepperdine University, found close to 100 percent parent participation. Those numbers could fall with a larger sample. But they still may be an improvement on the current rates of participation, which vary significantly depending on the socioeconomic makeup of the student body. Hiatt-Michael found that immigrant parents are more likely to go to conferences that include their children, who can translate for them. It’s a simple way around the language barrier, which my sister said made the parents of her students less likely to show up, and made the conversation sketchier when they did.

The criticism of including students in parent-teacher conferences is that it gives them power they can’t handle, at the teacher’s expense. “A lot of the current school reforms take away authority from teachers: standardized curriculums and tests, giving them lists of books they’re supposed to read,” said Kathy Schultz, director of teacher education at Penn (and my long-ago science teacher). “This could feel like one more threat to them.” True enough, but teachers and parents could still talk outside a child’s presence at the end of the conference, or at a different time. (Everyone agrees that the conference shouldn’t be their only point of contact.) Schultz pointed out that teachers would still direct the proceedings, by helping students set goals for the conference and figure out how to talk about their school selves. The main objection for teachers may be that including kids in conferences and conference preparation would inevitably mean more work. (Other proposals for improving parent-teacher relationships—back-to-school home visits, regular telephone calls—are even more labor-intensive.)

Mostly, though, parent-teacher conferences probably haven’t changed to include kids because schools don’t change much. The calendar, the length of the day, the basic units of instruction—none of it has been radically altered for generations, whatever the latest instructional trend. Making it a criminal offense to miss a conference would, of course, be a big change. Instead of putting one more ounce of energy into a law that would harm poor and immigrant parents, we could consider another way to shake up an old staid system that would actually improve it for everyone.