Debbie Karl's after-school chats with her two sons are typically brief: How was school today? Fine. Anything going on? Nothing.
The Internet now lets the Texas college professor find out when her kids are hiding something — such as the fact her younger son, Derek, is failing.
"My sixth-grader has not bothered to tell me he is failing math for the first time in his life," Karl said. "I was just perusing (the Web site) and he's got one, two, three, four, five zeros. I have immediately put a call in to that teacher."
Gone are the days when Karl would get such surprises only when the report card came home or when schools held parent-teacher conferences. A growing number of teachers and schools are making grades available nearly in real-time over the Internet.
Some teachers include pending assignments, written comments, class participation and disciplinary actions as well.
Many schools also let parents check whether their kids skipped first period, or whether they had chips or an apple for lunch. And as schools further integrate their computer systems, parents one day might also be able to see what library books their children have checked out and whether any are overdue.
Karl, chairwoman of computer information technology at Texas State Technical College in Abilene, Texas, wishes more teachers would participate.
"If everybody would use it and use it more, we could be more involved in our children's education," Karl said.
No figures were available on the percentage of schools offering parental access online, but school officials say it is relatively low although such offerings have been around for years. One vendor of systems for managing student information, Pearson Education, estimates that only a quarter of its 16,000 school districts buy the optional parental-access package.
And even in districts with the capability, not all schools or teachers have signed on. Only some schools require teachers to participate, though sometimes parents pressure them to do so.
Among the chief complaints:
- Teachers, particularly those used to calculating grades by hand, aren't always comfortable using software or don't want to take the time to enter grades. Rosemarie Young, an elementary school principal in Louisville, Ky., said she would rather see her teachers spend their limited time with the kids.
- Some teachers guard their grade books zealously and worry that making individual grades open for inspection would let parents quibble or would reduce their discretion in adjusting grades for factors that tests might not pick up.
- Parents can nag teachers who fall behind in grading.
"They know their kid studied all night and they know their kid took a test at 10:10 in the morning. At noon, they are online and asking, `Where's my kid's test score?'" said Kenneth Bird, superintendent of Westside Community Schools in Omaha, Neb., which use Apple Computer Inc.'s PowerSchool system.
Furthermore, many parents lack Internet access or computer skills. And technology alone won't always make inattentive parents suddenly involved.
But it might help those parents who skipped parents-teachers nights because they were juggling three jobs: Now they can check grades as easily as a stock quote.
"It doesn't mean necessarily that we're turning every kid around, but I think we're intervening more effectively than we did before," said David Stedman, who teaches U.S. history and American literature at Mead High School in Spokane, Wash.
Web access gets the community more involved and "gives parents a good feeling they have a good understanding what's going on at school," said Bonnie Bracey, a former schoolteacher who now trains teachers on technology.
Bird said many doubters have come to realize that improved dialogue can only be good. The focus of parent-teacher conferences, he said, now can be less on performance and more on what to do about it.
Before, parents had few opportunities to follow their kids' performance. Report cards and progress reports go out every several weeks or months. Parent-teacher conferences take place once or twice a year. Teachers call parents only when things get dire. Notes that go home with students often get "lost" before reaching the parent.
So parents must wring information out of their children directly.
"Kids don't always bring the bad stuff home," said Lynn Brokus, a parent who serves as a webmaster for Tri-City Christian Academy in Somersworth, N.H.
With the school's Gradeworks and Easy Grade Pro packages, Brokus can see instantly what assignments hadn't been turned in.
Before, she might have found out from a progress report sent midway through a term, but by then, "you've missed half a semester, and they could still have more stuff missing for the second half."
Benefits of open access
Many teachers say they appreciate such parental involvement even if it opens them up to the occasional quibbling or nitpicking about individual grades.
"We want to find ways to keep parents more informed so they can be more involved in their child's education," said Noelle Kreider, a technology integration coach at the Rialto Unified School District in California.
Open access also lets parents correct mistakes — so children don't get penalized for absences that should have been marked "excused," said Virginia Warner, a high school teacher in Virginia City, Nev.
Val Jerdes, a Milpitas, Calif., high school English teacher who uses the ThinkWave software package, said students can also log on and see for themselves how their efforts correlate with their grades.
"I've seen C and D students rise up to the B and A category," Jerdes said. "I would attribute a lot of that to the program."
For parents without Internet access, schools sometimes use their software to print out weekly reports to send home. Vendors are also exploring alternatives such as voice recognition technology.
One school even partnered with a grocery store chain to install Internet kiosks, said Shannon Flesch, manager of marketing operations at software vendor Skyward Inc.
Tom Doohan, who is piloting the Skyward package for Colbert Elementary School in Colbert, Wash., said the Web access hasn't reduced his other obligations: completing progress reports, calling and meeting with parents, writing letters home.
But with the software, he said, "there will never be a surprise as to grades or work that's out."