A Colorado school district is ditching parent-teacher conferences in favor of an online “parent portal,” and the decision is not going over well with teachers or parents.
The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City, north of Denver, is under pressure from the state to improve academics after years of poor performance, and school officials told Chalkbeat that a new Infinite Campus website will allow them to spend more time on instruction through updates to parents online.
Many of the Adams district’s roughly 7,500 students are English language learners and the vast majority come from low-income families. School officials did not announce the cancellation of parent-teacher conferences, though some schools used a “parent engagement day” in August to sign parents up for Infinite Campus accounts and to show them how to use it.
The website, which is also accessible through a smart phone app, allows parents to review weekly grades and information on specific assignments and attendance. The information, district spokeswoman Janelle Asmus contends, is “more robust than what they were able to get through a parent-teacher conference.”
“We believe this is going to be better over time,” she said.
But many parents and teachers who spoke with Chalkbeat cited problems with the program, and said it doesn’t provide the same level of feedback as traditional parent-teacher conferences, especially for parents with limited English.
“Teachers would tell me at conferences what I needed to help my son with, they would tell me how he was behaving and everything they did in class, like what they were studying,” parent Carolina Rosales, mother of two elementary students, told the news site. “The portal might tell me he failed an assignment, but what does that tell me?”
Elementary school teacher Jodi Connelly, a union representative, said that with the absence of parent teacher conferences, many parents want to speak with her before or after school instead. The situation both cuts into her time and poses problems for some parents who don’t speak English well. Those parents are typically offered interpreters at conferences.
“They want to have that conversation with a teacher, but it doesn’t replace the actual conference,” Connelly said. “My Spanish is OK, but not great, so I have to take time to find someone to have a phone call with me.”
Union president Barb McDowell said teachers are now using their unpaid time off to talk with parents, and the union is pushing to reinstate the parent-teacher conferences.
“All the teachers are really frustrated,” McDowell said. “We want to meet with parents. We send texts. We call. We try to have conversations. But at the same time, teachers know if they start doing it, it’ll just be expected of them.”
District officials could not provide data on attendance rates at parent-teacher conferences, but McDowell contends most families in her middle school classroom attended last year. She conceded that attendance tends to drop off for high-schoolers. Chalkbeat noted that other districts in the area use Infinite Campus, but continue to schedule traditional conferences.
The Adams 14 district is reportedly working to improve parent engagement as part of its plan to change the school’s legacy of poor academics, through more visits by teachers and a series of “engagement” days, but at least one expert believes the elimination of the parent conferences seemingly contradicts the district’s efforts.
“Generally speaking, everyone believes parents need an opportunity to meet with their child’s teacher,” Steven Sheldon, education researcher at Johns Hopkins University, told Chalkbeat. “I personally find this policy decision troubling. I feel like it is creating greater distance between the schools and the families that they’re serving and they’re really putting the onus on parents to get all the information.”
Sheldon noted research that shows online parent portals often disadvantage families with poor or no access to the internet, compounding inequities between affluent students and their peers.
Guadalupe Castro, parent of an Adams City High School student, said she set up an account with Infinite Campus, but it’s only in English and difficult to use. She said she’s continued to push without success to meet with her child’s teachers because the online system isn’t enough.
“I don’t understand it,” she said. “There’s a language barrier, so for me it’s more comfortable to talk in person. My thought is that it was the only space we really used to find out how our kids were doing. And most of all, for me it was about building that trust with the teacher so that I could collaborate with them and they could get to know me and know that I’m accessible to support them.”
The elimination of parent-teacher conferences in the Adams district also plays into a broader trend observed by University of Virginia education professor Diane Hoffman in 2013.
“Norms of parenting in many communities in the United States have moved away from what were commonly accepted and valued practices of diffuse authority and communal discipline—the expectation that other mothers, for instance, would make sure everyone’s kids behaved well at the bus stop,” Hoffman wrote for The Hedgehog Review, a publication of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.
The loss of diffuse authority and communal discipline makes parent-teacher conferences all the more important by providing valuable face time for parents and teachers to discuss a child’s academic progress and developing character.
The National Education Association offers resources for educators who want to get more out of those conversations, or to increase parental turnout, including a creative idea from Wisconsin business teacher Julie Woletz that has students begging their parents to attend.