Saturday, December 10, 2011

Parent Portals: Friend or Foe?

In last Sunday's Washington Post, an article ran about resistance to the "parent portal" from a school in Arlington County, Virginia.  The "parent portal" has many different names in school districts across the country, but basically it is a system wherein parents, students, and counselors can go online and see a relatively up-to-the-minute grade report for a student in each of their classes.  As the article points out, there are several different views that stakeholders take of this technology.  Students sometimes feel that it it involves their parents too much in their day-to-day academic lives--if they forget to turn in one assignment or do poorly on one test their parents may focus more on an isolated incident than on a larger picture of success over the long-term in a class.  Further, they feel that there is an:
"...inherent contradiction in a school that preaches personal accountability but gives parents uninhibited access to their grades and test scores." (source: www.washingtonpost.com)
Teachers can have mixed reactions--some feel that it prevents surprises and keeps parents more informed about how their child is performing, thus helping to start and support communication if a student is struggling.  Others are concerned about possibly unrealistic expectations on teachers for quick turnarounds in grading assignments:
"We have parents who want to know exactly how their children did on a test immediately after they take it,” said Wanda Perkins, president of the Arlington Education Association, which represents teachers. “At a certain point, it becomes too much pressure on the teacher and the student." (source: www.washingtonpost.com)

Parents, on the whole, seem to be fairly supportive.  In the Post article, an Arlington County spokesman states:
"This is a way for parents to see how their child is progressing beyond parent-teacher conferences and report cards.  Students need independence, but they also need support.” (source:  www.washingtonpost.com)
Further, as this article from Education World discusses, there is a view that if parents are kept more up-to-date on their child's academic performance and attendance in school, they are more able to support instruction from home.

I worked in a school system as a teacher that had a "parent portal."  There were definitely pros and cons.  As a teacher, I updated grades at least once a week, but oftentimes on a daily basis.  There was a time, though, where, because of my schedule (I was split between two schools preparing winter concerts) I did not enter grades for a week and a half.  A parent called my administrator and I received an e-mail admonishing me for not updating my grades in a timely manner.  I was able to explain the situation at hand, but with this technology comes a commitment to keep up with grading and postings.  The school system I was in ultimately set a policy of putting in a certain number of grades per week, which was helpful as it laid out for the entire community what the expectations were--teachers, parents, students alike.  On the whole, though, as a teacher I felt this technology was highly beneficial--students and parents always knew where they stood in my class, and personally I always welcomed when a parent called or e-mailed with questions or concerns about a certain assignment or grade.  It allowed us to come up with a solution and a strategy as a team to help their child get back on track.

I also did my school-counseling internship in the same system, and as a counselor I found the "parent portal" to be invaluable.  I ran a 9th grade Study Skills group for boys, and as a counselor was able to access the portal for all of the students in my group.  One of the reasons that I felt the group was successful was that I was able to print out a grade report for each of my students in all of their classes each week.  If we think about where middle and high school students are developmentally, they are primarily still in the "here-and-now" with regards to the orientation of time.  They neither look back a great deal to reflect on what they have done, nor do they think ahead too much for future consequences.  As such, many of them are genuinely unaware of just how many assignments they may have missed or just how much a low test grade has effected their overall performance in a class.  I found that being able to go over these reports with the students allowed them to take some personal responsibility and helped facilitate weekly discussions as to how they could improve.  We used this information as one of several tools to help them examine their study habits more closely and effect change over several months.  In the end, the group was highly successful and the students were able to improve a great deal and reduce their number of failing grades over the course of an academic quarter.

I think this is ultimately the answer that bridges the gap between concerns that these portals inhibit students from developing successful independent academic habits and the fact that they are a useful tool that help parents, teachers, counselors, and students develop a network of support around individual students.  As counselors, we can work with students and their families to learn how to use the information from the "parent portals" as a tool for academic success, building independence and strong academic habits, which in turn will help to support the educators in our buildings.

I'd welcome other thoughts on this topic--feel free to post a comment below.

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