2010 September 06 Monday
Parents, Teachers Blame Students At Meetings

The truth about parent-teacher conferences is almost scandalous. I say almost scandalous because while the teachers and parents conspire together they mostly conspire to agree to the truth about the kids.

Danielle Pillet-Shore, assistant professor of communication at the University of New Hampshire, has been studying parent-teacher interactions for a decade. What she has found has surprised her.

Most people think of parent-teacher conferences as occasions wholly dedicated to the assessment and evaluation of the student – a kind of student performance review focused on how the child is doing in school, akin to performance appraisals done annually for employees in organizations. But what’s really going on beneath the surface is an assessment and evaluation of one another.

“Parents and teachers behave in a way suggesting that they are each treating the conference as an occasion for their own performance review – using the student’s progress, or lack thereof, as a gauge of how the teacher is doing at his or her job of ‘being a teacher’ and how the parent is doing at his or her job of ‘being a parent,’” Pillet-Shore says.

At the start of each parent-teacher conference both parents and teachers are feeling pretty defensive.

So parent and teacher face a dilemma: How do they each display that they are “good” at their jobs given that they perform much of those jobs outside of direct observation by one another?

The fun part: Parents make themselves look better by dumping on their kids. Yes, you read that right. Parents are willing to be realistic when failing to be realistic makes them look bad.

The parents’ solution may surprise many. Instead of defending their children, parents are consistently critical about their children when talking with teachers, often delivering unsolicited, negative information about them.

There might be a usable lesson here. What do you think? Got any ideas on how to make public discussion on education and human differences more realistic? I'm thinking that teachers who are getting fired in large numbers due to poor performing kids might become a lot more realistic in their public utterances about innate ability.

“Parents use their criticisms as vehicles for accomplishing several goals, including showing that they already know about their children’s potential or actual troubles, displaying that they are fair appraisers of their own children, willing and able to detect and articulate their flaws, and reporting on their own efforts to improve or remedy their children’s faults, shortcomings or problems,” Pillet-Shore says.

Guess what the teachers then do? They agree about those dumb troublesome kids. They build on parental complaints. The parents and teachers conspire together to agree that the kids are the problem. How unlike politicians who have decided the teachers are the problem.

It makes sense for politicians to blame teachers for a number of reasons. One big reason: There are many more parent voters than teacher voters. Another big reason: liberal mythology holds that we are all capable of enormous intellectual feats given the proper environment. How to align the interests of politicians, reporters, and policy makers with the truth instead of with the mythology?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2010 September 06 04:35 PM  Education


Comments
scott said at September 7, 2010 6:56 PM:

From the trenches...
After leading or being a party to many parent-teachers conferences, the research appears to be accurate. What I see as a serious flaw during most conferences is the teachers' willingness to exaggerate a student's potential in order to end the conference on a good note. This is a basic rhetorical tactic to look to the future and ease the uncomfortable tension that may be created with a frank conversation. I've seen my share of parental hostility when you present them with the facts of their child's unruly behavior or laziness, even though, they may know it to be true. Remember the saying; “I can talk about my mother but don’t YOU ever talk about her.” Most parents know that their child is troublesome because the school is an extension of home behavior in most cases. Therefore, the conference can become a venting session from both sides and unproductive. A productive conference attempts to help the parent and student, but the teacher needs to know his/ her stuff about psychology, including assessment, and be willing to risk intrusion and/or abstain from political correctness. The point made;” I'm thinking that teachers who are getting fired in large numbers due to poor performing kids might become a lot more realistic in their public utterances about innate ability.” has credibility. In the end, the main objective of the conference is to work within a step process whereby the consequences for misbehavior or laziness increase, and the teachers/administrators can say that they communicated the situation. In my experience, conferences, as I’ve seen them conducted, rarely solve a problem.

Silvio said at September 9, 2010 9:37 AM:

The parents’ solution may surprise many. Instead of defending their children, parents are consistently critical about their children when talking with teachers, often delivering unsolicited, negative information about them.
There might be a usable lesson here. What do you think? Got any ideas on how to make public discussion on education and human differences more realistic?

I think it would be hugely encouraging if that information was being volunteered spontaneously without any angling from the teachers to tease it out. I would reckon, though, at least a few teachers, who have much greater experience at parent-teacher conferences than parents (like you vs the used car salesman), have worked out a few tricks to lead the conversation that way.

Back to the encouraging signs, if, as I suspect, most parents at some point, probably quite early on, become realistic about their child's abilities assessment of progress might more readily begin to focus on what would be appropriate for the child given his or her innate (or likely-to-be-innate) proclivities and limitations. That doesn't sound like much in itself, but it does prep people for hearing straighter talk from a politician with the guts to start reining in liberal fantasology.


Engineer-Poet said at September 10, 2010 7:04 PM:
Guess what the teachers then do? They agree about those dumb troublesome kids. They build on parental complaints.
I doubt that this would work very well or very often if there is a race difference or large class difference between teacher and parent(s).

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