Traditional parent-teacher conferences can feel like a chore for everyone involved: parents frequently come out of the 10-minute conference feeling like they don’t have a good sense of what their child does on a day-to-day basis; teachers can feel burned out after a day of nonstop meetings with parents; and students, who are typically left out of the process entirely, may feel anxious about having people discuss them behind closed doors. So, in the face of these realities, some schools are doing away with the conferences entirely and implementing student-led conferences (SLCs) instead.
Phil Wagner teaches science and math at High Tech High, a charter school in Chula Vista, Calif., that has used SLCs since its inception in 2007. Wagner describes the conferences, which happen twice a year, as “similar to parent-teacher conferences, but with the student leading it.” At High Tech High, parents come in for 20-minute meetings with their child, during which time the student presents a portfolio of work from each of her classes. Several parent-student conferences take place at the same time, with one teacher in the room and available to assist if necessary. But though the teacher is there, the idea is that the student is the one speaking and taking ownership for her work—and of the subjects she needs to work on.
“If the teacher sits down, then the parents talk to the teacher … the idea is to put the student completely in charge of the conference so the educator tries to stay out of the picture as much as possible,” explains Patti Kinney, the associate director of middle-level services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Kinney is an enthusiastic advocate of SLCs, which she helped implement as a middle-school principal in Talent, Oregon. She says there’s no age requirement for the conferences—she’s seen kindergarten-age kids participate in them—but she notes that younger children generally need more support and facilitation from the teacher. “With younger students, the child’s teacher generally sits at the table but has the student lead the conference and go through the portfolio with their parents,” she explains.
Kinney says that overall the conferences were a very positive experience at her school—and parents seemed to agree. “When we started, we had 40 to 45 percent attendance rate [for traditional parent-teacher conferences], but when we moved into SLCs, it shot up to 90 percent,” she says.
But how forthcoming are students in the conferences—especially if the teacher is out of earshot? Will a kid who fails to turn in assignments ‘fess up to it? Kinney says yes. “Kids are pretty good about being honest when you give them a chance.” Besides, she adds, because SLCs rely on samples of work, if the work isn’t there, the child is forced to explain why not.
Not only do SLCs hold students accountable for their successes and failures, they also allow them to practice real-life skills, like speaking with adults, advocating for themselves and setting goals for the future (each SLC typically ends with the student presenting specific goals for himself). Wagner compares the experience to a job interview, and he says that visitors to High Tech High are often surprised at how comfortable his students are speaking with adults. When the students go off to college, says Wagner, they have a “complete fearlessness” in talking to professors.
Wagner acknowledges that SLCs might not be for every parent, but he adds that when it comes to parents and kids, “There’s no such thing as too much communication.” And for her part, Kinney agrees. “Anytime you have parents and a child sitting down talking for 20 to 30 minutes, it’s a positive experience,” she says.
Bridget Bentz Sizer's writing has appeared in the Kenyon Review and The Washington Post, as well as on NPR.org and Discovery.com. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and two children.