Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

The Most Important Questions at Parent-Teacher Conferences

The pleasant chit-chat my husband always made with our children’s teachers at conference drove me nuts.

We had anywhere from seven to 10 minutes to find out how well our children were learning, what they were expected to know in each subject and what we needed to do to help them master these skills. We couldn’t spare time on a funny anecdote about homework. That’s at least 45 seconds wasted.

“Just let me do the talking,” I would say outside the classroom, as we waited for the bell to ring, signaling our turn with the teacher. He would agree, and then inevitably ask some random question that would derail the conversation.

I mean, he is a very good conversationalist.

But parent-teacher conferences are one of the few shots parents have to ask face-to-face questions of the most important person in your child’s school experience. It’s not the time for chit-chat. The annual state test reports that many districts send over the summer can be vague and hard to decipher, so those conference minutes are precious.

It turns out that many of us aren’t asking the right questions during that time. Bibb Hubbard, founder and president of Learning Heroes, a nonprofit based in Alexandria, Virginia, works to inform and equip parents so they can help their children succeed in school.

A national poll of parents with children aged kindergarten to eighth grade commissioned by the organization found a startling discrepancy between how well parents think their child is doing in school versus how children are actually performing.

Nine out of 10 parents surveyed believe their child is performing at or above grade level in math and reading. In fact, 66 percent of parents say their child is doing “above average” academically. Statistically, that’s impossible. National data of test scores show that barely a third of fourth- and eighth-graders are performing at grade level.

“Parents do not have an accurate picture of their child’s progress,” Hubbard said. The reasons are complicated. The vast majority of parents (86 percent) said they relied on report cards to gauge how well their child is learning. But a report card may not show how well a child is mastering the skills deemed necessary by state requirements.

A parent attending a conference might understandably ask, “How is my child doing in school?” That’s a typical question. They may hear a response of how well the child behaves or gets along with classmates, but not get information on specific areas in which the child needs extra help.

Hubbard says the way schools communicate with parents is mostly through indecipherable jargon, which most parents don’t understand. For example, standardized test reports often use the word “proficient” to describe a student’s progress. But that word can mean five different things to five different people, she said.

A key question for parents to ask their child’s teacher is: “Is my child performing at grade level in math and reading?” Parents should try to bring copies of last year’s state assessment to find out what the results really mean for their child’s learning in the year ahead.

This can lead to a tough conversation. Some parents may not want to hear their child isn’t progressing as well as they ought to be, and teachers may be reluctant to bridge the gap between perception and reality. But teachers have to be able to say, “Your child is not mastering concepts as quickly as we would like, and we are going to take these measures to help.”

Hubbard said their research found that, compared to last year’s poll, this year’s parents reported greater anxiety about raising their children. But they weren’t as concerned about their kids’ academic progress -- most assume their child is doing fine in that department. Rather, they were most worried about bullying, peer pressure, their child’s social and emotional health and even paying for college.

The rise in anxiety for Hispanic families was especially pronounced from the previous year. The survey did not ask why, although next year’s poll may explore that question in more detail, Hubbard said.

“We’re in a very different environment -- culturally, politically, socially -- than we were last year,” she said.

For the past couple of years, I’ve attended the parent-teacher conferences by myself, taken copious notes and debriefed my husband on the highlights at home.

It’s an efficient system, but Hubbard pointed out that it’s always possible to ask for a follow-up meeting or conversation if you run out of time at the conference. It can be helpful for a teacher to hear a little about how your child learns best and what they love to do.

That sounds like useful small talk.