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Published in Print: May 26, 1999, as More Students Turning Up at the Conference Table

More Students Turning Up at the Conference Table

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When Michelle Baker first learned that her son Colin would take part in a parent-teacher conference, she was skeptical.

"I thought, this is going to be a fiasco," she recalled.

Instead, Colin, who was in 1st grade at the time, was able to accurately pinpoint his academic strengths and weaknesses during the conference.

"He had the opportunity to hear his teacher talk about him with him sitting there," Ms. Baker said. "He was able to communicate and understand better what he was being judged on."

In the Perrysburg, Ohio, school district, where Colin is now in 3rd grade, educators increasingly are coming to the conclusion that the most important person affected by a school conference--the student--should not have to sit at home or wait nervously in the hallway while parents and teachers talk.

Pupils at three of the four elementary schools in the 4,400-student district not only participate in the meetings, they also lead the conversation.

"It forces the child to be introspective," said Becky Schooley, the principal of Fort Meigs Elementary School in Perrysburg, south of Toledo, where Colin is a student.

While it's difficult to trace the roots of conferences led by or involving students, there are signs that the practice is spreading across the country, said Rick Stiggins, the president of the Assessment Training Institute in Portland, Ore. The institute produces training videos and materials that emphasize daily classroom assessment and giving students some responsibility for the process.

Mr. Stiggins first learned about student-led conferences from educators in Canada about eight years ago. And judging from the large number of requests his institute receives for information on the practice, Mr. Stiggins said, it appears that such student-led meetings are now taking place in schools across the United States.

Adding the student to a conference that usually involves just the teacher and parents makes youngsters more accountable for what they are learning and "creates a kind of bond between the home and the school that is hard to get in any other way," Mr. Stiggins said.

The process, educators say, also helps students develop self-confidence and learn how to present themselves--skills they will need as adults.

'A Matter of Balance'

The practice, while well received by most parents and teachers, does raise a few questions--most notably, whether student-led conferences eliminate the opportunity for teachers and parents to talk privately about a student's progress.

"It's always a matter of balance," said Joyce Epstein, the director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "If one has student-led conferences, does that mean that there is no such thing as a parent-teacher conference?"

Teachers and principals say the answer is no. Issues that parents or teachers would rather discuss without the student present--because it might embarrass the child, for example--can be discussed at a different time.

In fact, Mr. Stiggins said, teachers should automatically offer parents another chance to meet.

And Ms. Epstein, who became aware of this method of conferences through her National Network of Partnership Schools, a group formed by Johns Hopkins researchers to focus on building strong school-family and community relationships, said that because such meetings create a better relationship between the parent and the teacher, the approach can make it "easier to deal with problems a little more gracefully should they come up."

The Whys and Hows

The Assessment Training Institute in Portland, Ore., produces materials that emphasize daily classroom assessment and giving students a role in the assessment process. The following is a sample of some of the information the institute provides on student-led conferences with parents and teachers.

Benefits

  • Stronger sense of accountability among students.
  • Stronger sense of pride in achievement among students.
  • More productive student-teacher relationship.
  • Development of leadership skills among students.
  • Greater parental participation in conferences.

Challenges

  • Uncertainty of sharing control with students.
  • Need to adopt a student-centered philosophy.
  • Logistics of organizing for conferences.
  • Difficulties that can arise with dysfunctional families.

Keys to Success

  • Students willing and able to take risks.
  • Teachers willing and able to step aside.
  • Clear targets known to all.
  • A shared language for talking about targets and their achievement.
  • A commitment of time to learn, prepare, and practice.

SOURCE: Assessment Training Institute.

Putting students at the center of school conferences is nothing new in Utah, where it's been a mandated practice since the early 1980s. But just because the legislature required students to be involved didn't mean that schools were all that knowledgeable about how to do it, said Julie Baker, the director of the Utah Center for Families in Education, a partnership between the Utah PTA and the state education department.

Some schools were enthusiastic about the idea, while others didn't make it a high priority, Ms. Baker said. So the center is just now beginning the process of training teachers and parents on how to conduct the conferences.

In Utah, the conferences, which are held twice a year, are called student education plans in grades 1-6 and student education and occupational plans in the upper grades.

From grade 7 on, the conferences also involve a school counselor instead of a teacher. The state education department is considering changing that, Ms. Baker said, because one of the purposes of the plans is to guide classroom instruction.

Getting Ready

While student-led conferences typically don't last longer than traditional parent-teacher conferences, they require much more preparation of students and parents, teachers say.

Parents need to be made aware when they schedule a school conference that the student will be involved.

And before the conferences, students typically collect their work into portfolios that they will present. They also go through a self-evaluation--usually involving checklists or worksheets--so they can discuss their performance and set goals.

Mr. Stiggins stressed that parents, too, need to come to the conferences not just to listen, but to discuss what they will do to support their children's educations.

In Lori Beth Burnside's 5th grade classroom at Wilson Vance Intermediate School in the Findlay City, Ohio, district, students also do role-playing to act out the conference as practice before the actual event.

In rare cases, the student will "freeze up" and need prompting, Ms. Burnside said.

Another question about student-led conferences is whether teachers will feel free to discuss a child's weaknesses with the student in the room. But most say that's not a problem.

"I feel I'm more honest because the students usually open a can of worms that I might not have opened," said Steve Snyder, who teaches 6th grade at Woodland Elementary School in Perrysburg.

'In Agreement'

Most schools that offer student-led conferences conduct them in the fall. At Fort Meigs Elementary, students and parents are also encouraged to hold follow-up conferences at home throughout the school year to discuss whether the student's goals are being met.

Student-led conferences can also be done at any grade level, though very young children--those in grades 1 and 2--usually are not able to lead the meeting and carry the conversation as well as an older child.

Teachers and parents say what amazes them most about this method is how competent students are at identifying both their abilities and the areas where they need to work harder.

In the course of preparing for last fall's conference, Colin Baker learned that his biggest weakness was failing to review his work.

"He works very quickly," his mother said. "He says, 'I want to finish it before anybody else.' "

But since that conference, he has been more careful to check his assignments before turning them in.

"All three of us understood the expectations," Ms. Baker said about the conference with Colin's teacher. "We were all in agreement whether it was positive or negative."

Vol. 18, Issue 39, Pages 1,12

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