What parents don’t want to hear at parent-teacher conferences

March 30, 2014

When my wife and I sat down at our daughter’s 5th grade parent-teacher conference last week, we hoped to get a sense that the teacher understood our daughter and her strengths and weaknesses.  But we didn’t. 

Instead, the teacher provided us with a litany of numbers and test results the school and the education-testing industry use to define our daughter and her education.

We learned that our daughter is expected to read 8 words per minute faster than she currently is.  We learned that she scored a 208 on some test she was predicted to have scored a 210 on and that she will hopefully score a 214 on this test by the end of the school year. We learned about some other test results, some of which my daughter did well on and some of which she didn’t, none of which I remember because they didn’t tell me anything meaningful about my daughter’s experience or education. 

Every year at parent-teacher conferences, it’s been the same –– we’ve been handed sheets of paper detailing her reading fluency as measured in words per minute, and every year we’ve been told that she needs to read faster to reach the goal for her grade level.  Yet every night when I read with my daughter, the things I love the best are when she interrupts me and asks what a word means, when she reacts and responds to what she’s read, when she wants to know why something happened, when we go slow and understand. 

Never once have we paid attention to the speed at which she’s reading.

Over the years at parent-teacher conferences, I’ve seen far too many charts and graphs of standardized test scores, percentile rankings, predictions for future test results. If I want anything out of my daughter’s fifth grade year, it’s that she end the year more excited and passionate and confident than when she began it. (She’s not.) I’m not interested in seeing charts that align class activities with “state outcomes” and whether or not my daughter’s progress is meeting some bureaucrat’s idea of success. 

The data-driven focus of education today creates a dangerous lock-step assembly line approach to education where students’ passions and interests are ignored. If we set out to deliberately create the most damaging educational system we could, it wouldn’t look much different than today’s system. 

I write this as someone who is not just a parent, but who has been a teacher for 20 years.  I don’t fully blame my daughter’s teachers –– I understand why teachers do conferences like this, why they show parents charts and graphs and lists of scores.  It’s easier.  And it’s expected.  And it fits into all the covert messages schools send teachers about what really matters: the data and the test results.  

As a high school teacher, I used to show parents test results and quiz scores as soon as they sat down at the conference table.  Six years ago, another teacher challenged me to stop talking about grades at conferences.  She advised me to find out what the parents’ concerns are, to share my observations, and to make the conferences about the experiences the students are having in my class.  Since I took this advice, conferences are a better experience for the parents and for me as the teacher. Here’s some data for you: during these conferences, fewer than two percent of parents have asked me what grade their student is getting.

What I want for my daughter are teachers and a school that will recognize her weaknesses and strengths (even if those strengths aren’t “measurable”), that will work with her on what she needs, and that will not reduce her education into a chart or a graph or some predefined outcome created by bureaucrats and small-minded government officials.