Heather Wolpert-Gawron

The Parent Portal: The Pros and Cons of Transparent Gradebooks

By on October 29, 2011

The Parent Portal is now open. No, this isn’t some Dr. Who vortex waiting to suck away all parents who can’t seem to drop their kids off on time. It’s the 24/7 online access to a teacher’s grade book.

A couple of weeks ago, my school told the staff that they were going to roll-out the ability for parents to have access to our grade books online. Needless to say, many teachers grumbled and rumbled. As for me, it gave me pause, but I knew that the high school was already doing it, and it was merely a matter of time for the middle school. Besides, two of my four ELA classes this year are the 8th grade honors classes, and many times those parents have the expectation of access that goes hand in hand with being an active academic participant in their students’ lives. Keeping up on their student’s progress plays a part in that student’s success. Perhaps the thought is that if the grades are accessible enough, more parents of the mainstream and at-risk students will begin to play a greater role in their children’s learning too. I frankly deeply believe the writing is on the wall about such levels of access. It’s where we’re heading (and many schools already have), so it’s not a battle I’m interested in waging.

Besides, there are some pluses to this new transparency:

1. There is no longer such a thing as, “I had no idea how Little Johnny was doing. Nobody told me.” Wow. That’s really powerful stuff to be able to take Lack of Communication off the list of excuses as to why a parent has been inaccessible or not present for a student’s struggles.

2. It will light a fire under my tush to grade at a quicker pace. I’m not very sluggish at chipping away at that mountainous stack of essays, but I definitely appreciate the incentive to get things posted quicker. Sometimes those piles can really be overwhelming, and knowing that folks might be routinely checking for updates will aid in my own motivation to routinely get feedback to my students perhaps quicker than I do now.

3. No more progress reports. As of now, every Thursday, I get a stack of progress reports from my students at the start of each class. They come from the various AVID teachers or counselors. They’ve been set up for one reason or another, and I find the weekly communication very helpful to those kids. But it can be a dip in classroom energy to fill them out and get them back before the end of the period. Now, as my colleague Darlene has realized, rather than the student handing these grade sheets to each teacher, turning them in to the counselor, then to the parent to be signed, then back to school to their AVID teacher, a student need only be at home to compile their own grades, print it out, have it signed, and bring it to school. The missing of instructional time is henceforth cut out of the weekly process.

4. It reflects the time we live in. I can check my bank account balance 24/7. I can check my emails 24/7. I can watch the news 24/7. This is an extension of the reality of our world, and school must keep pace with the world around it.

But there are some concerns I have with this transparency too:

1. It leaves little room for a student to slip and solve their own problem before Mom knows about it. That is, you always get some kids per assignment who don’t turn it in or, of course, the many who turn it in at a lower level than you would like to see. Those kids, especially those in middle school, need to be able to approach the teacher and solve the problem. And many times they do. OK, so they get an extension or they turn their work in a day or so later. My final grade book reflects the kid they became. It doesn’t ding them for the process it took to get there. This portal gives parents a snapshot of the components of learning in a way that might take ownership away from the student.

2. It will light a fire under my tush to grade at a quicker pace. Oh, I already said that as a plus. Well, it’s a minus too. I think I keep up a pretty good pace with my scoring and feedback, but I fear it’s never going to be enough for some parents and students.

3. It will require all teachers to be on the same grade book program. I don’t necessarily think this is a big deal, but I have a modicum of fluency with technology that some teachers don’t have. Every so often, a district adopts a new grade book program and teachers learn the new fad. Eventually, a teacher tends to settle on one that appeals to him or her. Many teachers have learned the many grade books over the years, and stuck to those they felt best served their needs. They will have an even bigger switch to make, not only philosophically but also technically.

4. It will require educating parents in how to read the program itself. Teachers don’t have the time to answer all the technical questions about how to read the online grade book. Why isn’t this filled in? Because it’s a staggered due date for students. Why does the “completed date” say such-and-such? Because that’s the date the last student submitted their work. Why does the program call Quarter 1 “Y”? I have no idea. It confuses me too.

These concerns, however, are not grand enough to get in the way of progress, and I believe that this is progress. It puts more on the parents, more on the students, and fills a need every family has had since that little pioneer schoolhouse on the prairie. Hey, I watched Little House every week. Don’t you think if given the chance, Mr. Ingalls would want to know every time Laura ditched to go fishing? He’d use the portal as a way to make sure Laura and Albert were doing their jobs as students (he never needed to worry about Mary, after all). But I think the fear many teachers have is that the ones who are really monitoring these online grade books are the Mrs. Oleson’s of the world who are really there to check on the teachers.

Nevertheless, the fact is that this accessibility, whether we as educators believe in it or not, is the present and the future. As a parent, seeing my student reach for that TV remote instead of his homework, one day I’m sure I will also want to see how my kid is doing when he’s claims he’s doing fine in Math. Then again, we have a no-TV-during-the-school-week rule in my house.

Our job as educators is to prepare our students for their future. Communication plays a large role in that job.

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