Volume 23, Number 4
Meeting of the Minds
The parent-teacher conference is the cornerstone of school-home relations. How can it work for all families?
Agnes Jackson isn’t proud to admit it, but last year she didn’t attend a single parent-teacher conference for her youngest son, who just completed third grade at the Thomas O’Brien Academy of Science and Technology in Albany, New York.This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.
It’s not as if she didn’t try. Jackson did respond when the school asked her to select a time for a face-to-face meeting. “They asked me what time could I be there and I told them, but they said, ‘Oh, somebody already took that,’” says Jackson, a single mother of three who works nights as a certified nursing assistant. She made several impromptu visits to the school, whose website touts it as a “nationally recognized Blue Ribbon School of Excellence,” but each time her son’s teacher was unavailable. “They’d say, ‘You need to wait until school is over,’” she recalls.
The parent-teacher conference may be the most critical, yet awkward, ritual in the school calendar. It is treated as a key barometer of parental involvement, so important that a Texas lawmaker earlier this year proposed fining parents $500 and charging them with a Class C misdemeanor for skipping one. New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wants to pay poor families up to $5,000 a year to meet goals, including attending parent-teacher conferences.
Yet, in practice, these conferences can be ill-defined encounters whose very high-pressure design—bringing together a child’s two most powerful daily influences for sometimes super-brief meetings about academic and social progress—make them a volatile element in home-school relations. For schools, parent-teacher conferences can be a nightmare to organize and may leave teachers spinning after hours of quick encounters. For parents, sessions can feel more like speed-dating than team-building and may encourage snap judgments.