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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Parent-Teacher Conferences WITHOUT Report Cards

By Peter DeWitt — November 06, 2011 4 min read
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Report cards have long been the focal point of the first parent-teacher conference of the school year. In the mind of the teacher, as well as the parent, it always made sense to have the report card sitting front and center as they discussed the academic progress of a child. However, instead of making grading the focus of the conversation, many school districts are making the student the center of attention by having parent teacher conferences without the report card.

Over the past few years some school districts, including the one where I am a principal, are taking a new approach to parent-teacher conferences by leaving the report card out of the conversation. To some educators this may sound like an odd way to approach parent-teacher conferences but there are more benefits than drawbacks.

School districts are trying to focus on student work, portfolios and social emotional issues. Some teachers and principals may find this approach uncomfortable but if they teach in grades 3-8 they still have plenty of other data through the use of pre-tests, post-tests and progress monitoring to discuss if they need numbers to back up their conversation. More importantly, without the report card looming over the conversation, parents and teachers can truly take time to focus on the whole child.

What Do We Discuss?
The parent-teacher conference does not have to focus on the report card. Report cards symbolize grades and successes and failures. When grades are printed on a paper and handed to a parent, the conference takes a shift. As a teacher you may not always want to hand out a paper to students before you give the directions because you understand that the students are paying attention to the paper and not to you. The same issue can happen in a conference.

If a parent sees a bad grade before the teacher has the opportunity to get the conference started, the conference has already begun at a disadvantage. The focal point becomes the bad grades and not the learning that the student is experiencing. We all know that school is about so much more than grades.

At the conference, teachers can have great discussions with parents regarding the self-esteem of the child or their social interactions with peers. In addition they can focus on the reading level of the student or whether the child has great skills in math.

A parent-teacher conference without the report card requires a shift in thinking for parents as well. Most parents attend meetings expecting to see the dreaded report card in the middle of the table. It would be a great time to ask the parent how they think their child is doing in school as well as ask if there are any questions that they need to ask of the teacher.

I realize that not all report cards provide bad news. There is a great deal of good information written on the report card as well. However, most adults focus on the areas of improvement before they focus on any of the strengths. A good conversation about the whole child outweighs any conversation about a report card.

Holding the Report Card Hostage
I once worked with a teacher who would hold report cards and not give them to students if their parents did not attend the parent-teacher conference. Although I understand the importance of discussing a child’s academic progress, many times the teacher would have the report card for many months because the parents would not schedule an appointment.

Holding the report card hostage seemed to be more of an issue for the teacher than the parent. The parent didn’t really care about getting the report card, which infuriated the teacher even more. I often wonder if the relationship between the teacher and the parent, therefore the student, would have been different if the report card wasn’t a part of the conference. Did the parent think they were only going to receive bad news?

How many parent-teacher conferences are the first meetings between a parent and teacher? Sometimes parents cannot attend Open House and take a night off from work so they can attend the parent conference. Does the first meeting have to include the conversation about grades? Does this conversation help or hurt the parent-teacher relationship? How many conferences could focus on the whole child instead of the grades of a child?

In the End
Report cards are clearly important. Our parents kept our report cards for decades and hand them down to us when we reach adulthood. However, how early is too early to focus solely on the report card? Do we, as educators, focus on the report card and discuss low grades too early?

I worry that we give grades to students at a young age which can be very discouraging. A student in first or second grade knows what a 65 on a spelling test means. Does the low grade get them to work harder in pursuit of a higher grade? Or does it make them feel defeated?

Having conferences without report card requires a shift in thinking for educators and administrators but it is a worthwhile pursuit. We should not teach students at a very young age that school is all about report cards and grading. We should teach them it’s about learning experiences that help us find our strengths and strengthen our weaknesses.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.