In a recent survey, 81 percent of parents said they attend parent-teacher conferences, but teachers said only 57 percent of parents attend.
Increasing parent involvement in their children's education entails two important actions: <i>schools </i>making various efforts to encourage parents to be involved and <i>parents </i>responding to the opportunities for involvement that schools provide. —National Center for Education Statistics report

Parent-teacher conferences are meant to strengthen the partnership between a child's most important mentors. In the best cases, that's exactly what happens, but parent-teacher conferences can be tricky. When things aren't going well at school, they can turn into blame sessions that leave everyone — child included — feeling frazzled.

A new report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows discrepancies in what parents and teachers say about the conferences and about the relationship betweens schools and parents in general.

Eighty-one percent of parents surveyed said they attend parent-teacher conferences, but teachers said only 57 percent of parents attend. The chasm between parents' and teachers' perceptions was even greater when they were asked about school open houses (back-to-school nights): most parents say they attend (84 percent); schools say the majority don't (49 percent).

The report went on to show similar gaps in perceptions about parent involvement in supporting children's school attendance, monitoring homework and encouraging reading.

"Increasing parent involvement in their children’s education entails two important actions: schools making various efforts to encourage parents to be involved and parents responding to the opportunities for involvement that schools provide," the report said.

"Though schools and parents each have a vested interest in reporting parent behavior in a certain light, other research has shown that parent self-reported data are often unreliable," it continued, noting that schools may also be at fault for lack of effectiveness in communicating expectations for parent involvement.

Education Week blogger Nancy Flanagan wrote an entry that relates parent-teacher conference horror stories from a parent perspective: long lines in a gymnasium full of hundreds of anxious parents; lack of privacy; and three-minute time limits, for a start. Flanagan suggests letting students lead the conferences, and offers some suggestions for schools and teachers to consider:

  • Do more than talk about grades.
  • Figure out a way to seat parents comfortably and expedite lines.
  • Let parents tell things about their child.
  • Share stories about what each student does in class, and display items that demonstrate student learning.
  • Ask parents how they want to stay in touch, including emails, phone calls and texts. Keep communicating.
A cartoonized youTube video shows a sardonic version of a parent-teacher conference from a beleaguered teacher's point of view. In it, the teacher informs a mother that her son is failing, and tries to enlist her help in raising his performance. 1 comment on this story

What follows is a comic run-down of excuses and blame-placing from the mother that the video's commenters recognized as true to reality. She insists her son is dyslexic, autistic and also a super-genius, but refuses the teacher's offer to have him tested so he can have extra services. The mother won't let the teacher tutor "Timmy" after school or at recess because he is a soccer star and needs to practice. And so it goes. "It's your fault if he's failing," the mother tells the teacher. "You make him learn too much."

U.S. News offers tips parents can use to get the most out of parent-teacher conferences:

  • Talk to your child before the conference about how things are going at school.
  • Make a list of topics you want to discuss.
  • Give personal insights at the conference about such things as medical issues and emotional upheavals that might affect your child's school performance.
  • Be open-minded. Parents and teachers form a partnership, so their relationship should not be adversarial.
  • Leave on a good note, and let the teacher know how to contact you.