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 recalls. Instead, the meeting turned out to be a big success: Colin, who was in 1st grade at the time, showed unusual insight into his academic strengths and weaknesses. “He had the opportunity to hear his teacher talk about him with him sitting there,” Baker says. “He was able to communicate and understand better what he was being judged on.”
In Perrysburg, a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, educators increasingly are coming to the conclusion that students should not sit at home or wait nervously in the hallway while parents and teachers huddle. Pupils at three of the four elementary schools in the 4,400-student district not only participate in parent-teacher conferences, they also lead the conversation. “It forces the child to be introspective,” explains Becky Schooley, principal of Fort Meigs Elementary School, where Colin is now a 3rd grader.
Such practices may not be as unorthodox as they seem, according to Rick Stiggins, president of the Assessment Training Institute in Portland, Oregon. The institute produces training videos and materials that emphasize student participation in daily classroom assessments. Stiggins first learned about student-led conferences from educators in Canada about eight years ago. Today, judging from the number of inquiries that his institute responds to, such meetings are taking place in schools across the United States.
Parents and teachers seem to like the new approach, according to Stiggins and other observers. Many educators believe that it makes kids more accountable for what they are learning, helps them develop self-confidence, and sharpens their presentation skills.
But parent-teacher-student conferences also raise tricky questions. The most troublesome: Will teachers feel free to discuss students’ weaknesses?
Educators who promote conferences led by students say that’s not a problem. Parents and teachers can set up another meeting to discuss issues that might embarrass students. In fact, Stiggins believes that teachers should routinely offer parents another time to meet.
Other educators contend that three-way conferences actually make it easier to deal with sensitive issues. “I feel I’m more honest because the students usually open a can of worms that I might not have opened,” says Steve Snyder, a 6th grade teacher at Woodland Elementary School, also in Perrysburg.
In Utah, the idea of students at the center of school conferences is nothing new. The legislature mandated the practice in the early 1980s. Still, schools are not always enthusiastic about the idea, according to Julie Baker, director of the Utah Center for Families in Education, a partnership between the Utah PTA and the state education department. Nor are teachers and staff well-versed in how to run the meetings effectively.
Generally, conferences involving students require more preparation on the part of the students. They typically compile portfolios of their work to present at the meeting. They also evaluate themselves somehow--usually with checklists or worksheets--so they can discuss performance and set goals.
When preparing for a conference last fall with his teacher and mother, Colin Baker learned that he worked too quickly on class assignments, often trying to finish before his classmates. But since the meeting, Colin has been more careful to check his work before turning it in.
A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1999 edition of Teacher