Parent-teacher conferences: Harder to get into than a Jimmy Buffett concert?

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First, a thirty-minute student led parent-teacher conference with one child’s homeroom teacher. Then, six five-minute conferences with another son’s individual subject teachers. And lastly, a ten-minute conference with my third child’s English language arts and social studies teachers, and another ten-minute conference with his math and science teachers, both mostly led by him. We parents of multiple school-age children attend so many of these meetings, and there’s nothing universal about them.

I have three children in grades three, five, and seven, and as you can see their schools’ offerings vary greatly. Some are great, some aren’t. But the worst of the bunch is the one I can’t even get in to: Sort of like when Jimmy Buffett tickets go on sale, by the time I logged on to sign up, all the “tickets” were gone. But I suppose that’s to be expected when there are only forty slots for more than one hundred students.

Let me explain. My seventh-grade son’s school has two days of conferences coming up, for which I must give the school at least some props; many middle and high schools forgo conferences entirely. Each conference is five minutes—yes, that’s it—and you have to sign up quickly lest you miss out and receive a message, in all caps, “NO SLOTS AVAILABLE. SIGN UP IS FULL.” Alas, I was too slow on the draw, with one exception. And, at last count, just four academic teachers out of thirty had any five-minute slots still available.

The education advocate in me thinks this is a problem. Should a parent who wants to attend but doesn’t sign up until they receive a second email from the principal be denied a face-to-face conversation with their child’s teachers? How can a school justify such a policy? And how widespread are these practices?

Regardless of the reasons for it, there’s something inherently wrong with a system that excludes parents who want to attend a parent-teacher conference because they aren’t one of the first forty, out of one hundred, to sign up. Yes, some parents are probably happy with information gleaned from their child’s assignments, report cards, and online grades, but many others value the advantages of face-to-face time. It can be an invaluable opportunity to discuss what the teacher is seeing in class and what they think you can do to support your child at home. It affords you benefits you can’t get via a report card, email, or phone call.

I understand that these policies are likely in place for logistical reasons, not because administrators and parents think they’re ideal for students and parents. In large middle schools and high schools, conferences for all students with all teachers are hard to pull off, which is probably why so many don’t even try. If a teacher with one hundred students had a five-minute conference with each of their parents, that’d consume more than eight hours of time. This would have to be done in the evenings, on early release days, or on days set aside on the calendar for conferences. And that’s only for five-minute conferences that most parents consider to be too short.

But schools have to find a way to connect more teachers with more parents. And my experience at my seventh-grader’s school tells me they aren’t. So here are a few ideas to change that.

First, more middle schools and high schools should hold parents-teacher conferences—and, when they do, they should make it easy for parents to indicate that they’re interested. At my son’s school, for example, there was no mechanism besides a personal email to let teachers know that we wanted to come but missed out on spots—that we weren’t just blowing off the opportunity. We tried. So add something like a simple waitlist.

Second, teachers should reach out to parents who didn’t get a spot and, even if a school has a waitlist, must not assume that moms and dads who did not sign up or reach out are apathetic or indifferent. I’ve been an educator; I remember the banter in the teacher’s lounge about parents who “don’t even show up.” But it’s never wise or productive to think the worst of parents. Maybe they tried and got shut out. Maybe they don’t speak English and translation isn’t available. Maybe they work in the evening and can’t attend a conference no matter how many slots are left. Maybe they are new to the country and are totally intimidated by a system that they don’t yet understand. Maybe the email with the sign-up link went to their spam folder. Maybe, like me, they opened the initial email while their mind was somewhere else and before they got back to it, the message had gotten lost in the inbox abyss. Or maybe they’re very invested but feel comfortable that they are up to speed on how their child is doing.

Third, schools should consider finding a way to make parent-teacher conferences available to any mom or dad that wants them. I would not, and did not, choose schools for my boys based on their approach to parent-teacher conferences. But I can see how it could figure in to a parent’s decision about which school is the right fit. Maybe a parent has a child who needs to work on their confidence when speaking in front of people and for whom student-led conferences throughout the year would be a huge selling point. Maybe a parent wants to see their child’s reading and math data periodically and a conference each trimester is the easiest way to make that happen.

Fortunately, this can be done. In researching this subject, I discovered that schools all over the country do conferences in very different ways. Many of the systems leave much to be desired, but some are getting it right. One example is Shaker Heights High School in Ohio, which Lisa Valerian Vahey, whose children attend, describes thusly:

We do two days in the fall without students in attendance—one day the conferences are from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm; the other day from 12:00 pm to 8:00 pm. There are ten-minute slots, and you can meet with any/all of your teachers. I’m the Parent-Teacher Organization co-president, and we work hard to make this experience welcoming—coffee and snacks, a greeting at the front door, and a table filled with parent and family resources. To sign-up, parents go online (there are still some kinks with that), or they can call the school to make appointments, if that route works better. Our system isn’t perfect yet, and we know family-school partnership is hard work, but it has payoffs that benefit all kids. It takes intentional effort on a regular basis—so these conference days are one lever, but there are others we are working on as well.

The truth is, with such disparity around something as basic as parent-teacher conferences, greater options for parents seem to make sense. Some parents don’t care about conferences at all and would rather communicate with teachers on their own. Or maybe not at all. Whatever their preference, this contrast in how parent-teacher conferences are handled is another example of the countless differences in how schools do things and why parents should have more freedom to choose the place that most suits their family. Unfortunately, too many parents don’t have sufficient options, so more schools can and must improve the way they organize parent-teacher conferences.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute