Visit an elementary school at 10 a.m. in the middle of the week for a third-grade dance festival and you'll be lucky to find viewing space on the playground as you stand among parents with cellphones and iPads deployed in order to record the event.
But drop in on a high school back-to-school night, and you are likely to see more empty chairs than ones occupied by parents.
In the current climate of data collection and analysis, one would think that today's school districts would compile statistics on how many parents attend these events. Perhaps they fear that the numbers would not look good.
When my wife and I went to our youngest son's back-to-school night, I felt sad about the empty chairs, especially because the parents were asked to leave behind a handwritten note of encouragement for their child to read the next morning. How would those kids react to a bare desktop when arriving at school?
At my most recent back-to-school night as a teacher, 44 parents showed up, representing less than a third of the 150 students I teach.
I polled my students to discover why their parents were absent. Some said their parents didn't know their way around campus — all the more reason for schools to encourage attendance at back-to-school night. Unlike an open house, schools prefer parents-only at back-to-school night.
It makes sense for children to accompany their parents in the middle and high school grades when one must locate six different classrooms with mere minutes between periods. Parents with limited English skills could use their children's help translating for them as well.
However, the most common reason given for parents missing back-to-school night is they didn't have the time.
Yes, conflicts with jobs and child care may arise. Yet the schools are asking parents to support their children just twice a year. If a parent cannot commit to that, then this is quite discouraging.
Schools should consider holding report cards as carrots to encourage parents to come to back-to-school nights.
At the elementary school level, parents schedule conferences with the teacher and go over a child's report card. This is doable because the elementary school teacher has only one class all day.
It is not feasible for secondary school teachers, who have 35 students each in five classes, totaling 175, to have one-on-one conferences. Even if an in-person meeting is scheduled for no more than five minutes, it would take 15 hours to hold all those meetings.
By distributing report cards in the child's first-period class, parents would have their children's grades put into their hands and could sign up for parent-teacher conferences as they make their rounds from classroom to classroom.
A study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics in the mid-1990s showed that parent attendance at teacher conferences was higher than any other school event, including back-to-school nights and open houses.
Additionally, the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory discovered in its 2002 study, called "A New Wave of Evidence," that when parents get involved with their children's schooling, kids have fewer absences and higher grades.
Parents showing up for back-to-school nights and open houses symbolize the importance of their children's education.
The saying used to be that it takes a village to raise a child. But that village cannot thrive without the citizenry of parents.
BRIAN CROSBY is a English and journalism teacher in Los Angeles County. He is the author of Smart Kids, Dumb Schools and The $100,000 Teacher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.