Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of The Prime’s Decoding the Data series, which examines organizations that report assessment data in new and creative ways. See the entire series on New Meridian’s website.

What comes to mind when you picture a parent-teacher conference?

Do you rush to the school and then stand in the hall waiting your turn? Do you then have a one-way conversation with an overtired teacher? Do you get 15 minutes to understand months of learning, comprehend test scores, ask questions and settle on a course of action before you are shuffled out the door?

It’s a familiar enough scene, one that many have experienced and one that often leaves both parents and teachers unsatisfied. WestEd is working to change that, overhauling the parent-teacher conference with an entirely new concept that gathers groups of parents for longer, deeper discussions designed to transform classrooms into educational communities.

“We provide coaching, professional development and technical assistance to help schools rethink and redesign how they engage families in student learning,” said Maria Paredes, WestEd’s senior engagement manager.

WestEd is part of a new breed of organizations that translate vast amounts of complex data into information that can be easily understood by parents, teachers, educators and policy makers. Their efforts are providing actionable information that can be used to guide learning improvements.

Overhauling the Conference

WestEd’s mission is simple: improve communication and collaboration between parents and teachers so that parents can be a more active force in educating their children. In practice, redesigning the parent-teacher conference is challenging because it brings change to a system that has been in place for decades, with very little critical review.

The new system that Paredes created starts by evaluating all of the activities that schools use to engage parents throughout the year, from bake sales and concerts to art shows and Science Night. At some schools, this could total 30 events or more, most of which are unconnected to learning goals. WestEd seeks to consolidate these events down to a dozen or so—about one a month—and integrate academic meetings that take the place of the traditional parent-teacher conferences.

The reimagined conferences are based on what WestEd calls Academic Parent Teacher Teams (APTT), groups of all the parents in a classroom and all the teachers who are involved in that class. Each group meets three times a year (once a quarter) with a fourth meeting dedicated to a one-on-one discussion between teachers and parents.

“This creates a safe learning environment, an opportunity for parents to come together with other parents to learn how students are doing, learn about benchmarks and goals, strategies from other families, share best practices and ask questions,” Paredes said. “We want to create a feeling of community, of working to support common goals—not just during school, but also out of school.”

Part of the advantage is that an engaged team of parents can continue student learning during the time when students are not in school. Students typically spend half a year without formal classroom instruction—a full 185 days or more, counting summer and weekends . “If students are really going to succeed, family engagement is critical,” Paredes said.

Sharing Assessment Data

The Academic Parent Teacher Teams meetings often start with a team-building activity, then a small lesson on a grade-level assignment in math, language arts, or a school-selected content priority. Assessment data is then discussed.

Teachers share the data, explain how the class is performing, and reveal how each student compares. Each parent is assigned a private number representing their student, so they can track their child’s performance but others cannot. The teacher explains to everyone in the room how to read the data and what the benchmark is. They then model activities that parents can practice at home and develop a six-week goal for each student. Parents are encouraged to share their experiences and strategies.

“It is empowering for families to see, to share, to understand and to have goals,” Paredes said. “Parents are finally able to have something tangible to discuss.”

Surveys in districts across the country show that parents and teachers both report positive experiences after making the change to the WestEd system. Indeed, company coaches help schools prepare for these sessions, including the choice of which assessment to share. It can be a big transition.

“We work really hard to help schools shift the hearts and minds of educators,” Paredes said. “It’s difficult to go from the old parent-teacher model to becoming facilitators of parent engagement, where the learners are adults as opposed to students. Getting teachers to think as partners, and feel confident with this new model, takes commitment and practice.”

So too does redefining the relationship between educators and parents. “Some teachers inherently understand that without parent involvement, academic success is very challenging,” Paredes said. “Others have a do-it-alone mentality. Creating a culture where relationships are valued is the goal.”

As Paredes put it, “Once that trust is established and the relationships develop, the impact on student learning is tremendous.”

Next Month: How one company is helping to make complex data more actionable for educators and parents.