How online monitoring tools are impacting education and families
Remember how your kids sometimes forgot to give you the Friday folder from school or pulled it out on Monday morning for a quick signature before you’d even looked at it? Or was that just my kid? Well, there’s a new Friday folder in town, the online student-parent portal, and families can access it any time they like.
Do parents like this new technology, ignore it, or does its 24-7 availability encourage a more pervasive monitoring of their children’s academics, even as they enter middle and high school? If parents are checking up on kids too much because they now can, is the learning experience hampered? Can students still learn responsibility and prepare for an independent life at college where Mom or Dad aren’t around to bail them out?
Over the last half-decade, Los Angeles-area families with elementary and high school-age children at public, private, charter and independent schools have seen a rapid increase in the use of educational portals. Most L.A. County schools still use a combination of paper, email, automated phone calls and online communication, and middle and high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District also use a single portal system, the PASSport.
Smaller districts such as Glendale and South Pasadena, individual charters and private/independent institutions have their own unique portals. These include Edmodo, ParentConnection and the Aeries Student Information System. But though the providers may vary, the systems all serve the same purpose. They allow students to electronically access assignments, submit homework and share appropriate content with classmates and teachers, and they give parents remote access to their child’s attendance and academic records. When middle school rolls around, parents’ presence on campus typically shrinks, so the portal also becomes a window into your kids’ school life.
A Delicate Balance
“Students’ potential for success rises when parents have access to the information they need to be involved,” says Samuel Gilstrap at LAUSD’s Office of Communications and Media Relations. “By staying current on attendance, grades, classroom assignments and progress to graduation, parents can have more meaningful conversations with their students about their paths to a successful education.”
Patricia Bentivoglio, upper school director at New Roads, a K–12 progressive college-preparatory independent school with an elementary campus in West L.A. and a high school in Santa Monica, agrees that technology is helpful – if used judiciously. “Software that allows parents to view grades is, I believe, a valuable tool if used properly,” she says. “Students need to manage and feel responsible for their own learning and achievement.” Bentivoglio advises parents to use restraint and avoid checking grades on a daily basis. Those who don’t, she says, “are forsaking the long-term benefit of personal responsibility in favor of the more immediate GPA.”
Eagle Rock mom Sibylle Westbrook agrees. She thinks parent monitoring through the portal tool is best suited for elementary school. “You can stay on top of things and be immediately aware when they don’t understand something or if there is a problem with a particular teacher and offer remedies early,” she says. “Close monitoring is appropriate and probably desired by most elementary school children as they enjoy spending time with a parent and [being] given attention by them.”
However, Westbrook encourages parents to take a step back during middle and high school and allow kids to find their own way, even at the risk of occasional low marks. Westbrook’s son, a high school junior, and daughter, an eighth grader, attend the Gifted, Highly Gifted and High Ability Magnet at Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High School. “My teenagers do not like to be asked questions about their work,” Westbrook says. “The younger one shows me work she is proud of; the older one wants me to stay out of it completely. They find questions annoying and an intrusion upon their privacy. I am there if they ask for help. Otherwise, I have completely backed off.
“We live in a culture of helicopter parenting that continues even into the college years,” Westbrook adds. “We try to micromanage our children, remove all obstacles from their lives, but in truth we hinder their independence and accountability. Children need to be able to make mistakes and learn how to deal with the consequences. Closely monitoring their work against their will is counter-productive.”
Deborah Carlisle Solomon, an educator specializing in infants and toddlers and the mother of a high-school student, takes things a bit further. “Educating should be left to the teachers,” she says, adding that a parent’s role – even with younger kids – is to “support the child emotionally, give them guidance and encouragement when they need it, and take them to the store to get poster board and glue sticks for their projects.” Older kids, she says, should learn to advocate for themselves and speak to a teacher if they don’t understand the material covered in class or need more time on an assignment.
That laissez faire attitude wouldn’t work for Solange Wills. Her older son is a sophomore at CHAMPS Charter High School of the Arts in Van Nuys, and her younger son is a seventh grader at Larchmont Charter School. “They have difficulty organizing their time and would rather do other things than homework,” she says. “They’re developing better study habits because they know I have access to their work. I believe [that] keeps the stress and anxiety level of school to a minimum so they don’t fall behind.”
Wills plans to step back a little once the boys are able to stay on schedule consistently. For now, the fact that they are in middle and high school does not prevent her from being involved. “I don’t have a set age for my kids to mature, develop good judgment and develop a desire to succeed in school,” she says.
Some Ups and Downs
For students, portals can actually help with that. Solomon’s son uses his school’s portal system to keep track of his assignments and be in touch with his teachers and classmates during after-school hours. New Roads school uses an online portal called the Learning Tool, which Middle School Director Allison Miller encourages students to learn – so parents don’t have to. “Believe it or not, your parents don’t want to always be looking at your assignments and checking up on you,” she tells them. “It’s not fun for them either!”
Miller thinks it is critical for middle schoolers to learn the job of being a student. “This sometimes comes with some stumbles, which can be hard for parents to witness. [But] putting the onus on the student allows the parent to step back with more confidence,” she says. She recommends parents check the portal only twice a week.
The tools do have their ups and downs. Parents must learn new technology – possibly figuring out how to use more than one portal if they have children in different schools – and keep up with the overwhelming amount of information provided. Accessing portals often becomes yet another parenting task, one that doesn’t necessarily encourage parent-child interaction. I found logging onto yet another online tool, with a user name and password, fatiguing. I preferred reading old-fashioned fliers and talking to my daughter.
Some parents complain that the technology does get in the way of real-world communication. “Having the portal has made some teachers less communicative with my child’s progress,” says Wills. “They just rely on the portal, which is not always up to date. For example, it [once] stated my child was missing work, when in reality the teacher did not grade it yet.”
Some schools, including New Roads, offer technology training and encourage parent feedback and suggestions. New Roads also encourages live communication. “If a parent is really overreaching in accessing the Learning Tool, our dean of students or counselor may start a conversation with [them] about their concerns,” says Miller.
Bentivoglio also suggests that parents initiate conversations with their child about using the portal so they feel respected rather than judged or pressured. She feels that the biggest drawback of portals is that they keep the focus constantly on achievement, adding one more mechanism that encourages students to think about grades and scores and data rather than learning.
“Children would benefit more from conversations with their parents about a book that the child is reading in English class, from asking about what exactly that experiment tested and how, and from asking them to show how they solved a math problem,” Bentivoglio says. “Those conversations, rather than those about the score that popped up on the screen, teach children that education is important.”
Getting the Most Out Of the Student-Parent Portal
Get connected. Record your login information in a safe place, and explore the portal at the beginning of the school year so you know how it works or can get help if you need it.
Keep it real. Have an ongoing conversation with your student about what is happening at school, what assignments are pending and whether he or she needs help. Know that if there is a serious problem, school authorities will contact ou directly.
Step back. Teachers recommend checking the portal twice a week and grades occasionally. Avoid the temptation to check in too often. As long as your child is succeeding at school, give them space to work and learn at their own speed.
Kaumudi Marathé is a Glendale-based journalist and mom to a 14-year-old.