EduSanity: The No Number Parent-Teacher Conference Challenge

I met with my sons’ teachers yesterday for parent teacher conferences.  Both of their teachers are amazing in their own unique ways, but they share a common love for young people that long ago convinced me that my boys were in good hands.

I started with Cooper’s second grade teacher and after exchanging the usual pleasantries, we sat down at the little table where my adult knees didn’t quite fit and I told her I wanted to issue a friendly challenge.

“Let’s discuss Cooper’s progress in your class without using a single number that you did not generate.”

She was clearly surprised by my challenge but quickly recovered and we discussed Coop’s social developments, his leadership qualities and how much he likes to learn.   He especially loves to read.   She showed me some of his writing and I found out that he loves his mommy, his family, and his teacher.  Actually, I just had my previous suspicions confirmed.  He’s been pretty clear about these matters in the past.

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We eventually got to the point where I was discussing how we were trying to limit the amount of time our kids spend on their electronic devices.  Did she have any suggestions for how he could spend some time productively with academic enrichment?  She told me about a math enrichment program the district had purchased that could help students with things they specifically needed to improve.  Then her look of uncertainty returned as she pulled out a page of his test scores generated by a computer-based testing program and said,  “I didn’t generate this number but…”

We had failed our challenge but I was okay with that because I had actually achieved the challenge’s purpose.  To understand what I mean we have to go back in time a bit.

I’ve noticed a drastic change in parent teacher conferences over the past 15 years.  Back in the late 90′s when I first began teaching, parent conferences were often unstructured conversations in which we would talk about grades, homework completion, social development, and just “how they were doing”.  These conversations were helpful, but when parents asked me what their sons or daughters could do in order to improve in class, my responses were usually informed only by the data I had at hand, which consisted of my grade book and some examples of work.  I didn’t have the data to provide a really good answer beyond “make sure he does his homework” or “study for tests”.

Now we have the data.  A lot of data.  It’s a veritable DATAPALOOZA in schools today.   So much data that I’ve found that parent conferences are now mostly guided by stacks of test score data.  I only experience parent-teacher conferences from the other side of the table now, and in those meetings I’ve seen State test scores, MAPS test scores, Accelerated Reader test scores, District created benchmark test scores…etc.  Data driven indeed.   Sometimes the discussion of test scores would take up the entire 15 minutes I had been allotted.  Eventually, my wife and I would just politely tell the teacher that we both had statistical training and could decipher the pages on our own.  Could we discuss “how he’s doing” instead?

Not having solid data back in the “old days” wasn’t ideal, but neither is the data avalanche that turns conferences about kids into a blur of numbers.

Thus the challenge.

I wanted to start the conversation with “How’s he doing?” because I believe that’s the most important question.  Does he work hard?  Does he get along with others? Does he have friends?  Does he like to read as much as he tells us he does?  These are questions that only a caring adult who is paying attention like a teacher does can answer, so that’s where we started.  There isn’t a test score in the world that can answer these questions.

But then we came to the question that I didn’t always answer very well back when I was a classroom teacher working from just a grade book.  “How can I help him improve?”  Fortunately, since she is the “smartiest and niciest teacher ever”, she knew just where to look.  Whipping out a single page of data, she was able to circle the aspects of math that Cooper scores well on, and the aspects he can improve upon.  Then she told us how he can use the district’s program at home for some enrichment in that area.  That was the only test score we talked about.

I felt like I had accomplished my goal as a parent because together we had achieved what I had sometimes failed as a teacher.  I had talked about my child’s progress with his teacher for 15 minutes, found out a lot about “how he’s doing” and left with a concrete suggestion for how I can help him improve a specific area of relative weakness in math.

I won’t presume to know how his teacher felt about my challenge.  I know that she has to explain test scores to many parents because they may not understand them otherwise.  I also know that explaining data over and over again to different people can feel very impersonal.  I couldn’t help but notice that she looks a lot happier when talking about children than she does when she’s talking about data.

My challenge to the readers of EduSanity is to try to make sure that you have both parts of this discussion at your next parent-teacher conference.  Learn how to read standardized test scores if you don’t already know how so that you can spend more time talking about “how your child is doing” and less time deciphering graphs and percentiles.  Most modern test score printouts contain an explanation of what the numbers mean.

At the very least make sure the discussion starts with anything but a number.

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Jason Endacott

Jason Endacott is an Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.  He received his Ph.D. (2007) and M.S. (2001) in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Kansas and his B.S. (1998) in Elementary Education from Kansas State University. Prior to his appointment at...