Four trends reshaping the traditional parent-teacher conference
The ritual unfolds with remarkable consistency each fall, says Heather Weiss, the longtime director of the Harvard Family Research Project: parents and teachers sit across from one another, “knees bunched up against a desk that is just a little too small,” talking hurriedly about goals, needs, and observations. The teacher recites what she needs to convey, the parents struggle to remember all the questions they’d wanted to ask, and everyone tries to make it meaningful — in the 15 minutes they’re allotted for the meeting.
What if we could rewrite the script for the parent-teacher conference? Weiss thinks we can — and in a new article, she looks at four trends that are adding some color to this old storyline.
According to Weiss, research over the last five years suggests that the traditional parent-teacher conference “is a necessary but insufficient model of sharing a student’s strengths and challenges.” Family engagement “is not a single event,” she says. “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.” The parent-teacher conference can be a key building block in that kind of rich family engagement, Weiss says.
Four trends that reimagine the parent-teacher conference
- Some districts are starting meaningful conversations with families even before school starts.
Example: In Boston, in 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, and get information about enrollment and preparation.
- Some schools are sharing student and classroom data as a way to deepen the conversation on the child’s progress.
Example: The Academic Parent Teacher Team model 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.
- Schools and families are continuing the dialogue beyond the conference by leveraging technology.
Example: A recent study by Matthew Kraft and Todd Rogers looked at the effectiveness of a one-sentence, individualized message from teachers to parents of high school students in a credit-recovery summer school program. This simple intervention decreased the percentage of students who failed the summer courses from 16 percent to 9 percent — a 41 percent reduction.
- Meaningful communication is happening outside the school.
Example: Home visits are an opportunity for families and teachers to get to know one another on the families’ turf. Some schools do home visits twice a year, and some augment them with family dinners. Through these visits, teachers learn about the family’s goals and values and how the family supports student learning at home, and families get to know the teacher in a more informal way.
- Parent-teacher conference tip sheet in English [PDF]
- Parent-teacher conference tip sheet in Spanish [PDF]
Get Usable Knowledge — Delivered
Our free monthly newsletter sends you tips, tools, and ideas from research and practice leaders at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Sign up now.