Saturday, February 10, 2007

Who is monitoring whom?

Apparently, Texas is considering making parent-teacher conferences mandatory. Parents who didn't show would be fined.

There are two reactions to this. First, what makes parent-teacher conferences so painful that you won't show up? Second, what use are they anyway? Emily Brazelon in Slate takes a crack at answering the latter. I'll come to that in a second. Let me start with the former.

Something that I didn't expect when becoming a parent is that I would dread parent-teacher conferences. Now, you are obviously assuming that the main reason for this is that we are greeted with a long list of problems with our children. That would make sense except it isn't true. Instead, from our perspective they are better characterised as a "love fest" (mostly). I actually don't think it is because our children are so special. It is just that there are no long standing problems that are not dealt with at other times. If there is a real issue, and we have not been free of those, the teacher does not wait until the parent-teacher conference to let us know. Usually an immediate phone call at work are straight after school is the ticket. So we go into these conferences expecting the love fest.

The issue is this. As a University lecturer, I symphathise with teachers and their dealings with students. As a lecturer to MBAs, I sympathise with teachers and their dealings with parents. For them, having to deal with parents is a route to criticism. They face all the issues I do. First and foremost, trying to work out who the student is and whether there have been any past issues. How can they expect to know this?

Actually, at pre- and early-school, teachers do pretty well remembering who students are. For specialist classes that drops off and I have sat in discussions with a music teacher and they are clearly winging it. That actually amuses me and so those are fine but ultimately useless.

So when we go to these meetings, both of us sit there mute. I feel like we are drooling and I definitely get the impression that the teacher is thinking, "are these really this child's parents?" I just do not know what to say. I don't want to be pushy. I happy to hear good things. And rarely do I have some sort of agenda.

The teacher doesn't know what to do with us. They look for a fight. They expect to have to write down some action list. But in the end there is nothing. We go away thinking how awkward that all was and wondering if we should have an agenda. Indeed, we come up with a list of at least trivial concerns. Things like: child no.1 is having trouble finishing her lunch on time, can you allocate a few more minutes to that? Child no. 2 thinks there is too much time for lunch and he bored sitting there. Then we can really achieve something.

So I can understand why parents might not like to turn up to these things at all. But that is a different thing from making them show up.

The question is: what is the purpose of this conference? With more continuous communication between parents and teachers throughout the semester, the real problems are addressed elsewhere. Brazelon gets interested in the "three way conference."

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.
Our school instituted this last year for our 5 year old in Prep. Suffice it to say, I couldn't make it (first time ever, so much for participation). Anyhow, by all accounts, it didn't really serve any function at that age. Everyone talked about what child No.2 needed to improve including child No.2 but there was no information really exchanged. Maybe it will be more useful for older children.

The key issue is: who is supposed to be learning what? The parent learns little about the children at these things (that is dealt with by other means). The parent learns a bit about the teacher but the bilateral nature of these conferences suggests that that is less efficient than a group session where a bunch of parents meet the teacher.

No, the only thing left is for the teacher to learn more about the parents. And there are good reasons for this to be important. Let's face it, the parents and perhaps siblings would be the best way for a teacher to understand the circumstances of the child; especially for younger children. However, our conferences are not ideal for that.

First, they take place in the teacher's domain -- the classroom. With the parents out of context, not much can be learned. From us, by the way, we give away nothing but the impression that little conversation goes on in our household except that we do lots of smiling and nodding.

Second, the teachers are not interrogating the parents. They are usually reporting to them. The flow of information is not in the right direction.

Finally, parents clearly would not expect an interrogation.

Let's face it: this isn't going to increase participation if we take these conferences for what they should be rather than what they are. However, they might prove more useful is the conferences take the form of home visits by the teacher. Then again, I am pretty sure we will have a new issue -- getting teachers to participate! It is like 'wack a mole' but then again so is much that comes with performance evaluation.