Saturday, October 06, 2007


Logging off e-monitoring of child's schoolwork

Sandy Banks From the Los Angeles Times

September 29, 2007 - I was cooking dinner when the telephone rang and an unfamiliar number showed up on the caller ID.

It was TeleParent, a recorded computer voice from my youngest daughter's school letting me know that "Your child. . . has a test tomorrow in third period."

I hung up not knowing quite what to do. I poked my head in my daughter's room, where she was sitting hunched over on the floor, surrounded by textbooks, highlighters and index cards.

"You have to study," I told her, yelling over the music blaring from the computer. "You have a test in third period tomorrow." I felt for a moment like uber-mom, unexpectedly omnipotent.

My daughter looked up and rolled her eyes. "What do you think I'm doing," she said sarcastically, gesturing to notes scattered around her. "I know I have a test tomorrow."

Of course she does. The "child" in question is almost 17, a junior in high school, taking Advanced Placement classes. Old enough to drive herself to school. And she needs Mom to tell her she's got a test tomorrow?

They are ubiquitous at schools today, these e-monitoring notification systems: TeleParent, Parent Portal, Edline, Parent Connect. It's not just for little kids still getting the hang of homework routines. It's used widely for high school students -- and their parents.

Want to know when your sophomore's book report is due? You can find out on Worried that your senior's been showing up late to first period math? Sign up for Parent Connect and you can monitor attendance in every class. Wonder if your 11th-grader missed a homework assignment? Expect a phone call from TeleParent.

Today's online educational tools include a computerized debit card for the cafeteria that conveniently lets parents load it with money, then allows them to ban the purchase of snack foods and sweets and dictate how many burritos their child can buy at once.

What's next? Webcams in each classroom, so you can see if your kid is napping in biology?

I understand why most parents take comfort in these online umbilical cords. A teacher at my daughter's school polled parents at back-to-school night this month and found that 90% liked her nightly recorded homework reminders.

I imagine I might have raised my hand too. . . but with my fingers crossed. What responsible parent wants to publicly say, "I don't want to know how my child is doing in your class."

Parent Connect lets registered parents log on and monitor their child's performance in every course. Our school's director, Brian Bauer, said about 1,500 of the school's 3,200 families have signed up.

The system is a carrot for motivated students, who can track their progress in class and plot their success. "And the stick of knowing that a parent can monitor his or her performance, conduct or attendance" daily online might keep less-engaged students on track, he said.

Finally, there is no excuse for parents to claim ignorance about how their child is doing in class. It's right there at the click of a mouse. And like it or not, TeleParent will call the house.

Teachers have mixed feelings. Most agree that online tools can help new students adjust to big, impersonal high schools, empower parents with information and help struggling students get and stay on track.

"Kids don't always make good judgments," said English teacher Christina Hoppe, who has seen attendance jump at her tutoring sessions since she began sending recorded messages home. "This gives parents more control, allows us to work together to solve problems."

But other teachers worry that the system is used mostly by "overachievers" -- the girl who can't sleep until she logs on at night to find out how she did on the chemistry quiz; the parents of a freshman boy worried that a single B will keep him out of the Ivy League.

Some parents check every day, even every period, and keep a running calculation of their kids' grades. A dip and they're frantically e-mailing teachers demanding conferences. "They're focused on the grades, not the learning," one teacher said.

I've never been a hands-off mother; for years, homework was my second job. I still have a kitchen cabinet filled with craft supplies for school projects.

But I'm trying to shed my role as homework monitor. I've launched two daughters into college and learned something from their rocky starts:

There's a fine line between concerned, supportive parent and over-involved helicopter mom.

And technology is luring parents across that line.

I've decided to decline the latest technological assists. I'm taking a pass from managing my daughter's academic life now that she's closing in on 18.

A year from now, I'll be legally banned from peering at her medical records, finding out her grades in college, checking on her savings account balance.

I can tell Mr. Bauer is disappointed I haven't signed up for Parent Connect. But it has the mildly uncomfortable taint of "Big Brother." And it feels like a ball and chain to me.

I'm sure I'd feel different with a different kid. In fact, I had one -- this same one -- a few years ago. My daughter and I endured years of battles over forgotten assignments, uneven test scores, undone homework in middle school. Her principal then gave me good advice: Back off.

I did.

And I learned there's a difference between coaching a teenager toward success and robbing her of a chance to learn to succeed independently. In this hyper-competitive world, it can be hard to unleash a teen, to recognize that the best learning happens through consequences, not hectoring.

I do want to know how my daughter is doing in school. But every quiz grade, in-class assignment and homework paper?

TMI, as my daughter says. Too. Much. Information.


Rethinking e-monitoring after progress report

A looming C on a midsemester assessment makes one mother take another look at computerized school programs that allow parents to track what's going on in the classroom.

Sandy Banks | From the Los Angeles Times

October 2, 2007 - My daughter's midsemester report card makes her mother look pretty stupid.

Last week, I poked fun at computerized school programs that allow parents to go online and monitor their kids' homework assignments, class attendance, test scores, even what they ate for lunch. Technological umbilical cords, I called them, for hovering parents who won't let their teenagers grow up. I have refused to sign up for them.

The column ran on Saturday morning. That afternoon, my 11th-grader's progress report landed in the mailbox. Her grades were good, except for one -- in a class that she enjoys and I expected her to ace.

She was surprised. I was chastened. I should have been paying more attention.

The response to my Saturday column from readers was swift, strong and all over the map.

I was taken to task for everything from letting my daughter "prepare for a test with music blaring from her computer" to being too lazy, self-absorbed and/or naive to do what is necessary to ensure her success.

"I pity your kid," e-mailed one reader -- who described himself as a "father of three college-educated, successful adults . . . who were deprived of one thing growing up: the freedom to fail.

"Of course your daughter wants you to 'back off,' " he wrote. "But teenagers don't know what they need. They depend on you to set goals and make sure they meet them. That's real parental love."

Others applauded my hands-off approach. "We need less interference and more positive reinforcement of the trust and faith we put in our youth," wrote Veronica Cohn, a mother of three who always "knew exactly who was achieving and who was struggling."

But both parents speak in hindsight. Their kids are now grown and raising children of their own. Parents in the trenches of child-rearing are bound to have a different view.

They told me online monitoring is a boon for working parents, divorced parents and those whose children are less than forthcoming about what's going on in their classes.

"In today's society, where divorce and sharing children between households is on the rise, e-monitoring can be a valuable tool for the non-custodial parent," one reader wrote, in a response posted online. ". . . It keeps the [parent] connected to their kids, up-to-date on their progress and gives them an idea of what is going on in their lives."

Sheila Doan found
San Marino's Parent Portal a great way to ease the transition into middle school for her sixth- and seventh-graders. "You go from elementary school, where you get weekly reports and the 'Friday folder,' to middle school and six classes a day and no way to keep up."

Several teachers said they worry that e-monitoring thwarts the shift of responsibility from parent to teen.

Spanish teacher Ezequiel Barragan said his school in
Orange County offers School Loop, which can be programmed to send a 5 p.m. e-mail every day telling parents what homework has been assigned.

"Most of my students are old enough to drive. Many are old enough to vote. . . . In that spirit, it is ludicrous that my students' parents should be involved in this kind of hand-holding," he wrote in an e-mailed response to the column.

And although many teachers like its convenience and the link it creates with parents, others suggest it makes teaching less satisfying.

"Many of the tasks we are expected to perform for our students are ENABLING them as they have been enabled all their lives at home," wrote one
Whittier high school teacher, who did not want me to use her name because "I do not need angry parents flooding my phone system."

Several like-minded parents shared stories like this: "My daughter, a freshman in high school, has always gotten A's without cracking a book," wrote Roe Leone. "She was stunned when she got a D in Spanish. I saw it coming and bit my lip until it bled. Nothing I could have said would have had the impact of actually receiving a D."

But then there was this, from a mother who believes her son owes his future to her ability to become his cyber-shadow: "My son just went off for his freshman year at college. . . . He was lazy, unmotivated, the classic slacker. It look a lot of checking up and hounding him [in high school] to keep him on track."

She logged on to her school's version of Parent Connect every day. When her son cut class, she took away his car. Missing homework got him grounded. Good grades earned him a later curfew. "It worked. I don't know that he really cared about the grades, but he did well enough to get into UCLA."

That's part of what makes it tough to decide just how much academic freedom to give our children -- our grand ambitions for their futures, the increasingly tough road to college, the competition for their attention from everything from MySpace to the outlandish antics of Britney Spears. Will a C in freshman biology translate to a rejection from Harvard four years later?

If I accept that times have changed and school is now a high-stakes endeavor, why is it so hard for me to gratefully accept something that promises me access to my child's academic life? Danny Zeibert of Parent Connect said that in high school, students use the service far more than parents. "It's another tool to help them do their best," he said.

Thinking of it like that, it's not so different from the calculator. Twenty years ago, there was much hand-wringing over its use in math classes. Kids would never learn their multiplication tables, percentages would remain a mystery.

Today, most math classes use calculators. SAT proctors allow their use on the college entrance exam. We've accepted that they allow us to escape tedious steps and calculate better, faster and more accurately.

Maybe Parent Connect and its online ilk are just one more step into a future that's already made things, like learning cursive, obsolete. Do kids really need to write the assignment from the blackboard into their planners? Must parents rely on garbled phone messages or notes stuffed in teachers' office mailboxes to figure out how their children are doing?

I'm still grappling with a basic question: What is the parent's responsibility, and what is the child's?

But now that we're heading toward a C in an important class, I don't feel so smug.

I'll be at school this morning, signing up to join the snoops online.


Where should parents draw the line when it comes to monitoring a teenager's schoolwork? Is e-monitoring an advantage or a crutch? Share your thoughts at

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