David McGuire, a school leader in Indianapolis, asked the Twitterati this week what does it take to get parents to attend conferences with their children’s’ teachers?
I encourage you to see his post:
Confession: I hate teacher conferences. Everything that happens during that brief slice of a teacher’s and a parent’s time could be done in another way that doesn’t suck.
Maybe it’s interesting to quickly get a look at the manner and disposition of our kids’ teachers, perhaps spotting a positive trait that comforts or a concerning tick that dismays, but that quick look isn’t worth the time expended.
Still, we persist. We do the damned thing. Some of us, anyway.
As an educator, David is really asking what can schools do to improve attendance, and most answers I’ve seen shift attention to proactive ideas for engaging parents well before schools want them to attend conferences.
Along those lines, the National Education Association suggests several relationship-building tactics:
1. When contacting parents, focus on the positive.
2. Find fun ways for students to keep parents informed about school experiences.
3. Develop programs that entice parents into schools.
4. Use home visits to meet parents on their own turf.
It’s a feel-goody list that reads like a Dim Sum menu of pablum for schools that are eager for contact and while their parents are not.
I searched the internet and found a dog pile of how-to’s instructing frustrated educators in the snake charming arts of wooing parents into meetings. There’s a solid piece of advice here and there meant to “make your schools welcoming,” but what if school-initiated engagement isn’t the problem?
Underneath David’s question about why parents aren’t present on conference night, I think there are several others. We might start by asking a different question. Are parents really as missing in action as we collectively assume?
According to ChildTrends.org, parent involvement (as measured by attending conferences, meetings and volunteering) is at record levels.
Here are three of their “key facts”:
1. In 2016, the percentage of students whose parents reported attending a general meeting at their child’s school, a parent-teacher conference, or a school or class event reached their highest recorded levels (89%, 78%, and 79%, respectively).
2. That same year, there were large disparities by educational attainment in the percentage of parents who attended school or class events (54% and 93%, respectively, for parents with less than a high school degree and those with a graduate/professional degree), and who volunteered or served on a committee at their child’s school (25% and 65%, respectively). These disparities have remained relatively constant since 1996.
3. Also in 2016, the percentage of parents who attended school or class events differed by poverty status (62% and 93%, respectively, for households in poverty and those not in poverty), as did the share of parents who volunteered or served on a committee (27% and 47%, respectively).
If you believe self-reporting from parents, we aren’t missing. We do show up for our kids. If some of us don’t, it’s for understandable economic or social reasons. Parents with more time, flexibility in work schedules and other resources are better positioned to attend school functions than parents without those advantages.
Planned school meetings held at dinner time on weeknights, especially in the context of school districts where many kids rely on buses to get to school, obviously decreases attendance for families who are food insecure and reliant on public transportation to show up.
That said, we can take the charity of that argument too far. I wonder if that compensatory rationale excusing unacceptably low levels of parental participation needlessly contributes to an unhealthy expectations gap that worsens the home-school partnership.
Not All Schools Give A Pass To The Less Fortunate
Not all schools give a pass to the less fortunate. Especially those schools designed with a deep commitment to changing the outlook for children suffering in poverty. Some schools serving under-resourced families still make clear demands for active participation in the educational process, and the results are clearly better for children on the margins of social progress.
The Department of Defense’s schools (DoDEA) strongly “encourage parents to meet with their child’s teacher for parent-teacher conferences.” Since these are schools for the children of military families, I suspect the “encourage” part has more gravity than when civilian districts say it.
Look at the DoDEA’s suggestions for what parents should do before, during and after the conference to see how their expectations of parents go far beyond merely showing up to passively take a briefing.
It appears to be working. The DoDEA schools are outpacing others when it comes to closing gaps in achievement. According to a recent post-NAEP press release they say “[i]n 2019, DoDEA had the highest performance among Black and Hispanic students of any state or jurisdiction. This resulted in us having the smallest statistical gaps in average score between White and Black or White and Hispanic students on the NAEP.”
That notable success could be attributed to their universal curriculum, high standards or even because they draw a more disciplined sample of parents, but, setting consistently high-expectations for parents coming from all backgrounds to be responsible for their children’s’ education can’t hurt.
Which raises an uncomfortable question: what if some parents are more invested in raising kids who win in academics so they can win in life?
If that is true we can (and should) still use every tool to educate every child in the care of tax-funded schools, while also knowing that helicopter, lawnmower and bird-dogging parents give an advantage to some kids.
For some families, the idea of not attending conferences—or needing to be prompted or seduced into this responsibility—is unthinkable. Of course you show up, and knowing that in some school districts everyone else is coming (which means time with your teacher(s) may be short) you come prepared.
For other families, it may be a case of “no news is good news.” If something is going wrong, the school will notify you. That’s a dangerous parental posture, especially given the dysfunction of schools, but a reasonable one.
Maybe this is where I should clarify two important things.
The first thing is that my argument isn’t a play on respectability politics. Some will say “you’re making a bootstrap argument for people who don’t have shoes.”
I’ll reply: in a country where poor people have cellphones with monthly data plans and cable subscriptions with 70+ unnecessary channels of mind-numbing slop, we can do more—as our ancestors did—if our survival depends on it.
The point of all these words is that parents matter. We must show up even when we hate it because that’s our job. If we aren’t doing our job the world won’t care and the consequences will be disastrous. Racism will continue. Disparities will exist more. Incarceration will be en masse. Welfare will remain insufficient. Socialism will still have it’s clock cleaned by capitalism. And gaps in student achievement will still predict who will have, who will have a little while wanting more and who will have not.
But, for my anti-bootstrappers, let me add a second part.
I’m not a fan of the idea that when kids aren’t doing well in schools it’s because they have absentee parents, or the concurrent idea that poor parent = uncaring and middle-class parent = perfection. That gives the system a free pass. I’m not there.
Even if we as parents do all we’re supposed to do it isn’t insurance that the system will do all it’s supposed to do. That’s the point here. Not to blame us for our oppression but to charge us with our liberation.
There is so much wrong with schools before parents show up that it’s almost trivial to harp on our absenteeism. The fact that we may not return every call or show up to many pointless meetings can’t pave over the fact that the way we train, hire, evaluate, promote and fire teachers is so broken we can’t be serious about teaching and learning; or the way we zone schools purposely creates islands of privilege surrounded by education deserts; or the way we fund schools prizes rich Whiteness while punishing poor Blackness; or the way we produce school principals virtually ensures a nation of schools run by people unsuited to lead teachers into anything but passive madness; or all the ways we acquire school board members ensures our boards are often two eggs short of an omelet; or that the science behind our pedagogy is so often slapdash that it should be categorized as a war crime against children.
The system is rigged against us whether we show up or not. That’s an empirical fact. Yet, not showing up for the fight is the worst kind of forfeiture.
I hate teacher conferences. Everything about them is a waste of my time.
But I go.
For more information, read this NCES report: