Real Engagement Means Telling Parents the Truth

Picture a typical parent-teacher conference. A mother, Kendra, sits down with her son’s fourth grade teacher, Ms. Martin. These are some of the things Ms. Martin tells Kendra about her son, Terrell:

“He is earning mostly A’s and B’s.”

“He does all his work.”

“I never have any problems with him.”

If you were Kendra, you’d probably walk away with a smile on your face, feeling like your son is in great shape. After all, the teacher has verified for you that Terrell is working hard, not displaying any disciplinary issues, and performing up to the school’s standards academically.

However, Ms. Martin’s feedback painted only part of the picture. Here are some other facts about Terrell that did not come up during the conversation:

  • Though he is in fourth grade, numerous assessments indicate he reads and does math at a second grade level.
  • When he took state tests for science and social studies as a third grader last school year, he received scores in the lowest of five categories for both tests, which places him significantly below state standards.

How is it possible that Terrell could be struggling so much and the teacher would send positive messages about his performance? Surely Ms. Martin knows about Terrell’s challenges. Is she misleading Kendra?

There are plenty of possible explanations, some of which I will outline below. But first, let’s be honest: this scenario isn’t uncommon. Teachers and parents often “engage” about student progress, yet part ways without getting on the same page. In many cases, that’s easier than dealing with the hard truth. Learning problems linger and worsen before they are addressed. Years later, someone looks at a thick file and says, “How is it possible that nobody intervened to help this child?”

So how did Ms. Martin and Kendra fail to get on the same page? And why is this problem so common?

Differing expectations: Do Ms. Martin and Kendra expect the same things from Terrell? It’s not clear. That conversation never happened. Had they begun the conversation by talking about Kendra’s hopes that Terrell will graduate from college and go to law school, the discussion might have centered on whether he is on track for that outcome.

Anxiety about sharing bad news: Many teachers are hesitant to deliver bad news to parents, especially when the student is well-behaved. They sandwich the real news between so many layers of euphemism that the message gets lost along the way. When a teacher gets vague, saying things like, “Terrell is doing just fine… for Terrell,” without any specific evidence of what Terrell is mastering academically, there is a good chance Terrell is struggling. But how many parents know that? How many of them feel comfortable asking probing questions of a professional educator during a parent conference that might be eight minutes long?

Fuzzy school grading policies: What are grades based on? If a child hands in all of his work, is he going to get good grades regardless of how well the work is done? That can happen. In other cases, students may have lots of opportunities to earn extra credit to make up for poor grades. There is no law that says a student with A’s and B’s is performing on grade level. What is graded, how it is weighted, and how grades reflect different levels of performance varies from class to class and school to school.

Information gaps: Ms. Martin was not Terrell’s teacher last year. She wasn’t around when Terrell received failing scores on a number of assessments last year, has never had the time to review his past materials, and hasn’t seen him take any significant assessments this school year yet. She knows only what she’s seen from him the past few months – which is that he puts his full effort into whatever she asks him to do.

Selective hearing: Put yourself in Kendra’s shoes. You received some test score reports last spring and summer describing Terrell’s performance as below-average. But they included percentiles, scale scores, and a host of other dense stuff that was really hard to understand. You balance that against report cards that tell a more positive story about your son and a teacher who says he is a pleasure in class. Which information are you going to believe? If there was a problem, surely the school would tell you—right?

The list goes on. It’s really easy for parents and teachers to talk past one another, even when everyone has the best intentions.

And it doesn’t only happen when students are struggling; a student may be doing well in class and meeting the teacher’s expectations, yet be capable of much, much more if appropriately challenged. While such students might be getting good grades in the short term, they won’t reach their full potential in the long term. That’s a huge problem, too.

In a future post, we’ll discuss ways to avoid these traps, including good questions that parents can ask their children’s teachers. The stakes are high. When everyone involved in a child’s education is on the same page, you can build a strong team around the child to solve problems and support growth. Without this kind of calibration, missed opportunities pile up and issues compound.

As for Kendra, my heart breaks when I think about the dreams she has for Terrell and the fact that they are slowly slipping away, without her knowledge. She deserves better. She deserves honesty. If we want success for our schools, we need to build supports for families that allow them to fully engage on behalf of their kids. Terrell is so much more than a young man who “does all his work.”

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