Questions Every Parent Should Ask About Their Child's Education
Leave work early. Drive to school. Stand outside classroom. Teacher opens door. Clock starts ticking. Now what?
The ritual of the annual parent teacher conference is nearly upon us. The 10 to15 minutes that a parent has with a teacher can be a springboard for student success or a bear-trap of blame. So how to prepare, what to ask, and how to keep the focus on what matters for your child?
Communities for Teaching Excellence and the College Board have teamed up to create a questions-to-ask guide for parents: “How Do I Know My Child Is on Track?”. Years of academic research have shown that of all the things a school provides, a great teacher has the most impact on student achievement. This guide uses that research to help you understand if a school is doing everything it can to help your child and your child’s teacher be successful.
Prepare: Your Child is a School Secret Agent
Before you get to the parent teacher conference, you’ll want to do a little reconnaissance. Talk to your child about what’s happening in school. Extensive research by the Measures of Effective Teaching Project shows that students know great teaching when they see it. You just have to ask the right questions. They should be specific and focused on observable data. Here are a few:
• What was the most interesting thing you learned about or did in school today?
• Do you agree that…
o Your class stays busy and doesn’t waste time?
o Your teacher explains difficult things clearly?
o You like the ways you learn in this class?
o You learn a lot in this class every day?
Feel free to make notes (there’s a place for them in our questions-to-ask guide). You’ll want to bring them with you to the parent-teacher conference.
Game Time: Making Your Teacher an Ally
Now that you have a sense of what’s happening at your child’s school from your own little secret agent, you’re ready. You should start on a high note by sharing with the teacher any positive feedback you’ve received from your child. If your child’s answers to certain questions worry you, now is the time to explore those issues. Your goal should be to keep the conversation focused on what you and the teacher both want: a classroom that engages your child in learning.
In addition to addressing any concerns your child raised, you should find out how the teacher is monitoring your child’s progress. A few questions you can ask are:
• At what grade level is my child performing in the core subjects of English, math, science, and history/social studies?
• How do you know if my child is struggling or succeeding?
• How does my child’s work compare with the state and/or district standards? What could make it better?
You can help the teacher if you have last year’s test information and samples of your child’s work. That way, you and your teacher can track your child’s growth from an agreed-upon starting point. Schedule another time a few weeks out when you can touch base with the teacher about where things stand. With open lines of communication, a focus on data, and a willingness to help, you and your teacher can become your child’s greatest allies.
Not Done Yet: Off to the Principal’s Office You Go
Before you leave the school, there’s another person you need to meet: the principal. The principal plays a crucial role in creating a positive teaching and learning environment. Historically, principals conducted brief observations of teachers and gave them either a thumbs up or thumbs down evaluation. Principals in Pennsylvania are now expected to provide ongoing and detailed evaluations, coach teachers who are struggling, and create a school culture that allows learning to flourish. Some questions you can ask are:
• How often are you observing teachers and providing them feedback?
• How do you create a positive school climate?
• How do you help teachers improve?
Remember, experience in the classroom does not guarantee effectiveness. Be sure to ask the principal how successful your child’s teacher is at helping students learn, and how success is measured. Principals should have a meaningful way of determining the areas of improvement for all teachers, and should have a plan to help them.
The Ultimate Goal: College or Career
Education should be a path to help identify and develop your child’s strengths and passions. Every year your child is in school, you’ll have the opportunity to help shape that path and be an advocate for your child. We hope the Questions to Ask Guide will help you on this path. By taking a problem solving approach in the parent-teacher conference, you can be the hero that your child needs to succeed.
JAMES FOGARTY is the Community Engagement Manager for Communities for Teaching Excellence in Pittsburgh. He works with community organizations to provide trainings to parents about teaching effectiveness and how you can maximize your own parent power. If you’re interested in having him come to your PTA/PTO or organization to give a presentation, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen