I Will Not Check My Son’s Grades Online Five Times a Day

More and more schools are adopting student information software, allowing millions of parents to monitor their kids’ attendance and academic progress. But should they?

Last week I received a letter from my son’s high school that started like this:

Dear Parent/Guardian,

PowerSchool, our student information system, allows you to create your own account and use a single password to access information for all of your children who attend school in our district. This account allows you to keep up to date with your students’ academic progress, attendance, historical grades, etc.

I believe the letter goes on to detail procedures for setting up an account that would allow me to track nearly every aspect of my son’s academic life. I say, “I believe,” because I have not read the rest of the letter. Our family had known the letter was coming, and we’d already discussed how we were going to handle it.

My husband and I handed the letter over to my 14-year-old son with the promise that we will not be using the system to check on his grades or attendance (or anything else). In return, he promised to use the system himself and keep us apprised of anything we need to know.

We’re not the only family that’s had to decide what to do with “student information systems.” According to Bryan Macdonald, senior vice president of PowerSchool, 70 to 80 percent of the schools that use PowerSchool choose to implement the parent portal, which represents about 9 to 10 million students. “Our best data suggests that over 80 percent of parents and students who have access – meaning their school has enabled remote access – use the system at least once a week…and many users check multiple times a day.”

When I posted a challenge on Facebook encouraging friends to join us in eschewing PowerSchool, I received many comments and emails, none of them neutral. Either PowerSchool and its ilk are best thing that’s ever happened to parenting or the worst invention for helicopter parents since the toddler leash.

Several parents reject the technology on the grounds that they want to talk to their kids face-to-face about school:

I am fairly certain that the fear of facing me with bad academic news was the only thing that kept my kids in line. Take away that moment when they have to look us in the eye, admit to not having studied and the ensuing results….not on your life! -Lisa Endlich Heffernan, mother of three and parenting blogger at Grown & Flown

We don’t use the info, either. We just talk to our kids. -Elena Marshall, mother of eight

Teachers and administrators have mixed feelings:

I like that parents can check grades and I encouraged them to do so. I feel that open communication between home and school is essential in educating children, and only sending midterm and final grades home makes grades seem like a big secret. With parent access on PowerSchool, there are no secrets.  I am bothered, however, by parents who CONSTANTLY check…sometimes 5 or 6 times a day. These parents tend to be the ones who push their children the hardest and are the first to complain when grades aren’t entered on the DAY an assignment is due. As a language arts teacher with 60 papers to grade, I just can’t do that!  I’m not sure parents realize the school can see how many times they access the portal. –Mindi Rench, mother of two and junior high literacy coach and education blogger

Teacher Gina Parnaby tweeted that PowerSchool is a “Bane. Stresses my students out to no end. Freaks parents out b/c they see grades not as a communication but as judgment.” Teacher Dana Salvador wrote in an email that i-Parent, the parent portal her school has implemented is a moot issue for her. This is not because the parents have not chosen to use the software, but the parents of her low-income, ESL students don’t speak English and there is no Spanish version of the software.

For a sampling of what students think about PowerSchool, one need look no far than Twitter.

Ultimately, for many, including mother and teacher Christiana Whittington, the choice to use the unfettered access depends on the child.

I think this may be best viewed as a case-by-case scenario. Our son sailed through school effortlessly with excellent grades but hit one very hard. He procrastinated telling us about his issues. By the time we found out that he was struggling, it was really too late to save him. If we had had the opportunity to check on his grades through the portal, we could have easily prevented this. Our other daughter, being dyslexic, has always struggled in school. She had not yet come to grips with the fact that she is a bright person in spite of her disability and was embarrassed about lower grades especially in the highly competitive environment. For her, we would definitely have chosen to access the portal. I think overall this is a good thing but it can also completely undermine trust between parent and child. You really need to know your child.

For the time being, I choose to trust in the power of open communication and my son’s emerging sense of responsibility and character.  When I handed him the envelope, and asked him to keep me in the loop, he thanked me and returned to his room to do his homework. He has four years of high school ahead of him, and only time will tell if my faith in him is warranted. Until then, I plan to keep my hands out of what should be his business, his responsibility, and his life.


Why Online Gradebooks Are Changing Education

The Atlantic

New software better connects parents with what’s happening in their children’s classrooms—but it can also lead to heightened surveillance and less risk-taking.

How did my son perform on his high-school physics test this morning? Seconds after the teacher posts his score online, I can find out. With just a few more clicks, I can also tell you how the grade affected his overall performance for the quarter, his GPA for the year, how many times he was late for school, and what he ate for lunch this week.

All of this information is readily available to parents at any time through our school district’s virtual gradebook—an increasingly popular tool that is reshaping parental involvement in schools nationwide and opening up the black box of student assessment. Experts predict that these programs will evolve using the latest technology to measure increasingly varied facets of students’ educational lives. While many parents seem to appreciate the increased connections with their schools, others—myself included—are not interested in the constant surveillance and assessment of their children.
Nearly all of America’s public schools now post grades online through student-management software such as PowerSchool, Engrade, LearnBoost, and ThinkWave, according to Jim Flanagan, the chief learning services officer for the nonprofit International Society for Technology in Education. And online gradebooks are only one component of these programs, which also typically aggregate students’ demographic information, arrange schedules, and track and manage payments for food services—ideally, Flanagan said, providing comprehensive collection of data for every student.

Many parents are not interested in the constant surveillance and assessment of their children.
Student-management software was first developed by locally operated companies about 15 years ago, before being slowly acquired by larger education technology firms, and now accounts for a big chunk of the $8.38 billion ed-tech market. Those within the industry are very optimistic about its expansion. These systems have the potential to rethink the ways that schools assess students, Flanagan said, beyond the traditional quizzes and tests—for example, through data dashboards that measure students’ emotional state, level of engagement, and mood or motivation. One San Francisco start-up has created a program that utilizes motion-tracking and facial- and speech-recognition software to collect this type of data, which they say will increase hands-on, project-based learning.

Some parents have reported that this new software is an effective method for increasing communication between school and home. Many of my friends are very happy with this technology. One said that she learned that her daughter was struggling with reading by reviewing her marks on the online gradebook; the teacher never informed my friend of these issues. With this knowledge, she was able to get help for her daughter early in the year. Others have said that they’ve been able to correct teachers’ grading errors with these programs.

To respond the proliferation of these online gradebooks, the Harvard Family Research Project has a list of useful tips for administrators, teachers, and parents on how to effectively use these new tools. It recommends that parents strike a balance between monitoring data and allowing the child to progress at his or her own pace, noting that parents should avoid constantly checking online portals, also known as “e-hovering.”


Others are less impressed with the impact of this technology on family life. Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist and the author of The Price of Privilege, described online gradebooks as “a miserable idea.” Teachers these days grade “everything,” even works in progress, she said, and the online gradebooks make these scores subject to constant inspection by parents—potentially discouraging kids from experimenting or making mistakes that are integral to learning.
This heightened adult surveillance of kids, Levine added, is precisely what they don’t need during this stage of development; it can create “robo-students” and exacerbate the already-distressing levels of stress, anxiety, and depression among teenagers. “As an adult, what would it be like to have your every move evaluated?” Levine asked.

At the same time, parents can get overly attached to the constant information rewards the software provides. “Your kid gets an A one day, then a C the next, and then an A the following day,” Levine said. “Parents end up logging in too many times. It’s seductive and addictive. One loses the ability to manage it.” When her children were in school, she found that she was logging in every day, so, she requested that school not send her any information. “There wasn’t anything there that I couldn’t learn from talking to my kids.”

Although I can easily find out how my 16-year-old son fared on this morning’s physics test by logging into our online gradebook, I won’t. Like Levine, I stopped looking at his grades about a year ago, because daily monitoring of his performance made everyone miserable. Dinner time had become the place for all-caps conversations about grades that did nothing to help an already-stressed high-school junior. Between school, track practice, and homework, he routinely works 18-hour days, his weekends packed with SATs, track competitions, and term papers. We decided that home had to be a refuge from those pressures; he couldn’t handle angry parents on top of everything else.

“Parents end up logging in too many times. It’s seductive and addictive.”
By stepping away from the Big Brother of online gradebooks, my husband and I chose to prioritize learning and sanity—both his and ours—over grades. We were not interested in producing another “excellent sheep” or fracturing our family. So, I ask my son about once a week if he’s checked his grades and whether he’s doing okay, but that’s about it. I can see that he’s working hard and learning, and that’s good enough for me. Schools have to balance the demands of parents who want more data with parents who want less—and maybe a simple “opt out” button on these gradebooks could create a happy middle ground.

Now that we’re not arguing about grades during family meals, we’re talking about other things. We talk about the primary results and the policy differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. He and his dad talk about European soccer teams. We’re helping his little brother learn the names of all the countries in Europe. Because learning doesn’t just happen at school; it also happens at the dinner table.