>By JAN HOFFMAN
NYT May 4th 2008
ON school days at 2 p.m., Nicole Dobbins walks into her home office in Alpharetta, Ga., logs on to ParentConnect, and reads updated reports on her three children. Then she rushes up the block to meet the fourth and sixth graders’ buses.
But in the thump and tumble of backpacks and the gobbling of snacks, Mrs. Dobbins refrains from the traditional after-school interrogation: Did you cut math class? What did you get on your language arts test?
Thanks to ParentConnect, she already knows the answers. And her children know she knows. So she cuts to the chase: “Tell me about this grade,” she will say.
When her ninth grader gets home at 6 p.m., there may well be ParentConnect printouts on his bedroom desk with poor grades highlighted in yellow by his mother. She will expect an explanation. He will be braced for a punishment.
“He knows I’m going to look at ParentConnect every day and we will address it,” Mrs. Dobbins said.
A profusion of online programs that can track a student’s daily progress, including class attendance, missed assignments and grades on homework, quizzes and tests, is changing the nature of communication between parents and children, families and teachers. With names like Edline, ParentConnect, Pinnacle Internet Viewer and PowerSchool, the software is used by thousands of schools, kindergarten through 12th grade. PowerSchool alone is used by 10,100 schools in 49 states.
Although a few programs have been available for a decade, schools have been using them more in recent years as federal reporting requirements have expanded and home computers have become more common. Citing studies showing that parental involvement can have a positive effect on a child’s academic performance, educators praise the programs’ capacity to engage parents.
In rural, urban and suburban districts, they have become a new fact of life for thousands of families. At best, the programs can be the Internet’s bright light into the bottomless backpack, an antidote for freshman forgetfulness, an early warning system and a lie detector.
But sometimes there is collateral damage: exacerbated stress about daily grades and increased family tension.
“The good is very good,” said Nancy Larsen, headmaster of Fairfield Ludlowe High School in Connecticut, which uses Edline. “And the bad can become very ugly.”
At an age when teenagers increasingly want to manage their own lives, many parents use these programs to tighten the grip. College admission is so devastatingly competitive, parents say, they feel compelled to check online grades frequently. Parents hope to transform even modest dips before a child’s record is irrevocably scarred.
“I tell my son, ‘What you do as a freshman will matter to you as a senior,’ ” Mrs. Dobbins said. “ ‘It will haunt you or applaud you.’ ”
Depending on the software, parents can check pending assignments; incomplete assignments; whether a child has been late to class; discipline notices; and grades on homework, quizzes and tests as soon as they are posted. They can also receive e-mail alerts on their cellphones.
With some programs, not only is a student’s grade recalculated with every quiz, but parents can monitor the daily fluctuations of their child’s class ranking. The availability of so much up-to-the-minute information about a naturally evasive teenager can be intoxicating: one Kansas parent compared watching PowerSchool to tracking the stock market.
Kathleen DeBuys, a mother of four in Roswell, Ga., used to check her e-mail first thing in the morning: the ParentConnect alerts would fly in by 6 a.m. The subject line might read, “Claire has received a failing grade. …”
“And I’d freak out,” said Mrs. DeBuys, speaking of her oldest child, then a high school freshman. “I’d be waking her up, shouting: ‘Claire! What did you fail? What is wrong with you?’ She’d pull the pillow over her head and say, ‘Leave me alone!’ ”
Usually the explanation was benign: there was an inputting error, or Claire had missed the class because she had been sick or pulled out for a gifted-and-talented program. But the family’s morning was already flayed.
“It was horrible,” Mrs. DeBuys said.
Many students, in fact, like the programs, which let them monitor their records. Their biggest complaint is their parents’ unfettered access. “I don’t think kids have privacy,” said Emily Tarantino, 13, a middle-school student from Farmingdale, N.Y. “It’s not like anyone asked our opinion before they gave parents the passwords.”
In thousands of Facebook postings about the programs, teenagers bitterly denounce parental access as snooping. Emily Cochran, 18, a Pittsburgh senior, writes on Facebook about Edline, “It’s like having our parents or guardians stand over us and watch us all day at school, waiting for us to slip up.”
When teachers post scores before they return tests, parents may even see the grade before the students. On Facebook, in typical Internet shorthand, a teenager writes: “I walk into my house and I don’t even get a ‘hello son, howd your day go?’ I get yelled at bcuz I failed a test.”
Paradoxically, many parents who regularly check their children’s grades online fondly recall that during their own adolescence, subterfuge was a given. “I’ll admit it,” said Chris Tarantino, Emily’s mother. “I got satisfaction in fooling my parents.”
Programs like Edline do away with that sly pleasure. But Mrs. Tarantino, a PowerSchool fan, said the stakes had changed drastically. Academic pressure a generation ago was not nearly as all-consuming.
It is difficult to demonstrate conclusively what impact these programs have on school performance, because of all the variables. Anecdotally, principals report that the programs have motivated otherwise hard-to-reach parents and students. They have helped some middle-school boys, in particular, become better organized.
“Edline opens up communication between parents and teachers,” said Ron Jones, the principal at Huth Middle School, which has a 90 percent minority student population, in Matteson, Ill., a middle-class Chicago suburb. “It helps keep the children minding their p’s and q’s.”
The software can certainly be a boon to working parents. And divorced parents can log on without having to contact each other. A few years ago, India Harris, then a single mother and an Army staff sergeant from Omaha, monitored her son’s math grades while on duty in Iraq, and got him extra help.
In Noblesville, Ind., after a survey indicated that parents felt sufficiently informed by PowerSchool and subsequent e-mail exchanges with teachers, the middle-school principal canceled parent-teacher conferences this spring and gave the time back to classes.
Districts have different rules about who has access to which information. Parents then decide how much they want to know. Katie Mazzuckelli, a mother of twin seventh graders in Alpharetta, Ga., checks ParentConnect daily. “There are two types of parents,” she said. “They either do what I do and embrace it, or they say: ‘They’re in middle school and beyond, and they need to be independent. This is an invasion of their privacy.’ ”
Mrs. Dobbins of Alpharetta, a comfortable Atlanta suburb, checks ParentConnect even on weekends. Although there is only modest data on her fourth grader, she goes through the exercise to prepare the child for the scrutiny that her older children receive. She asks the sixth grader close questions about coming assignments.
And she reminds her high school freshman, whom she describes as a bright student with a tendency to coast, “ ‘My personal philosophy is that you need to be on your own, but if you fail to do your job, I will know about it,’ ” Mrs. Dobbins said.
When he does not turn in his homework, she makes sure it is done that night even if it is too late to get credit for it. “And through ParentConnect,” she said, “I’ll e-mail the teacher, ‘Please let me know if you don’t get it within the next day because that’s part of his punishment.’ ”
MRS. DOBBINS is unapologetic about her monitoring of her children’s schoolwork. “I know,” she said, “I’m the mom with big horns. But it’s been a fabulous parenting tool. I think every school should implement it, especially in high school, when kids don’t talk to parents and parents can’t talk to each teacher.”
The software, some educators say, can be misused as a surrogate for meaningful connection between families and schools. “Some teachers love it because it takes the burden of communication off them,” said Diana Brown, a high school English literature teacher in Georgia who still sends home the occasional handwritten note. “Their attitude is: ‘The parents should know what the kid’s grade is. It’s not my job to contact them.’ ”
Many parents may be confused by the complexity of scoring. Some bemoan that few teachers include comments or context. “There’s nothing telling you that your kid loves the class but isn’t a good test taker,” said Mary Kay Flett, a mother in Roswell, Ga.
Many districts do not educate parents about how to use the programs in a measured, judicious fashion with their children. That lapse is implicit in the angry, humorous and poignant Facebook postings. “My dad checks powerschool like 3 or 4 times a day,” writes one teenager. “Yeah he even came to my school once to tell me about it.”
From another teenager: “Before, the screaming and disappointment only had to be endured four times a year. Now it can happen every night.”
And this: “ive been grounded twice for the same grade … once when my mom found it on edline and again when I actually got the grade a week later.”
Some parents refuse to use the software, but many students check their grades to the point of obsession. Denise Pope, a Stanford lecturer who consults with secondary schools, worries that these programs can aggravate student anxiety. “When the focus is on the grade so much, you’re saying to kids, ‘It’s more important to get the grade, by hook or by crook, than learn the material,’ ” she said. “And that leads to the rise in rampant cheating.”
Some school districts are experimenting with restricting what information can be seen by parents of high school students. Other districts only post grades three weeks before the end of a marking period, to give students time to turn things around.
For many districts, the grade and attendance software is but a thread in a tapestry of programs, both online and off, to engage students as well as parents. Many teachers provide lively, interactive Web sites and online hours for help with homework.
The success of the online grading programs also depends on the willingness of teachers to update them accurately and to devote time to follow-up e-mail messages. “I’ve had teachers e-mail me, ‘There’s a test coming up, make sure they study certain things, make sure they have breakfast,’ ” Mrs. Tarantino said.
“Family involvement is not about serving parents,” said Joyce Epstein, director of the National Network of Partnership Schools. “It’s about mobilizing all the resources that support student success. These technologies can hurt or help, depending on how they are done. But the interpersonal connections of teachers, parents, students and counselors really are necessary to go beyond the impersonal technologies.”
One challenge she raises is equity. “Some parents do not have access to high-tech services,” said Dr. Epstein, a professor at Johns Hopkins. “Saying that those parents can use the computers at a local library is not equitable.”
These days, Mrs. DeBuys, the mother of Claire, now a graduating senior in Roswell, calls herself a “reformed ParentConnect parent.”
It took her several years to figure out how best to use the program. “You have to connect to it on your terms,” she said.
It can be hard to resist, she said. “It speaks to all your neuroses as a parent, all this need to control, that pressure to make sure everything is perfect,” she said. “How are these kids going to learn to be responsible adults?”
She has since turned off the reminders and the alerts. But she still checks ParentConnect a few times a week. To her freshman son she may say, “ ‘I notice you have three zeros for homework grades, so you need to talk to your teacher.’ ”
She laughed. “And in a perfect world,” she added, “he would.”