Report Cards in Cyberspace

Gone are the days when students rush home to intercept their report cards from the mail.

Today, schools everywhere can purchase software that allows parents daily access to test scores, grades, attendance records, discipline reports and homework assignments.

There can be several benefits to using the program. Parents can see if their student's grades fall precipitously. A sudden fall in grades often means the student is depressed or using drugs, so parents can intervene in a timely way.

Since students can also log on, they can keep track of their daily progress. There is evidence that if students themselves keep track of how they are doing, they tend to improve.

For sure, students need to take charge of their learning. Too often in my 37 years of teaching, I saw students -- invariably male -- whose parents failed to promote personal responsibility in their children. The students were bright and capable, but doing little or no work.

It was sad to see the parents turning up in despair at parents' night with junior in tow and often a sibling or two along for the ride. It was clear that education was a huge priority to the family. The parents would do all the talking and refer to their son as if he were not there. Sometimes they would ask him a question to which they already had the answer. "You haven't turned in any work?"

With a trapped look on his face, the young man stammered some evasive answer and looked away. It emerged that the parents were doing what they thought was necessary to get their son's grades up -- hiring tutors, restricting favorite pastimes, enforcing study hours, restricting time with friends -- all to no avail.

It was difficult to say to parents -- these deeply concerned, conscientious parents -- that their son's problem was that he hadn't taken responsibility for his own learning. With his parents trying to control his life, the young man had taken his revenge in the area of most concern to the parents, his own schooling. It's the best way to get back, to refuse to dance to the tune of academic rectitude, a perfect revenge, hang the consequences to his own future.

Providing a space-age monitoring system to anxious parents may in many cases hurt education. Schools will install the system because parents often complain about not knowing how their students are doing in a timely way, but schools should also caution parents about the best strategies to help their young people commit to education. Education should not be a matter for satisfying parents' goals for their offspring but a young person's quest for identity and enlightenment.

As difficult as it can be for parents, the best way for parents who find their children tuned out is to insist on regular study hours. On every school night, they must stay in a quiet room, with no TV or telephone -- music negotiable. If their child does not study, let the Ds and Fs fall as they may.

As a parent I found this strategy fiendishly difficult to follow, but studies show that the best way to encourage low-achieving students is to put the lid on an outrage or anger at a poor report and find something to encourage.

After dealing with grades, parents can then talk to their student, again without anger or scorn, about the student's goals and whether the Ds and Fs serve these goals.

Adolescence can be hell. Parents need to listen carefully and sympathetically to their young people. Crises at the high school level can be minimized if from the time their students are in kindergarten and the first grade, parents talk with them about their experiences at school and allow them choices appropriate to their maturity.

At all levels -- and particularly during adolescence -- students need love, support and understanding more than website monitoring. Adolescents will experience successes and failures and will learn from both if allowed the freedom that responsibility brings.

Donal Brown (Dbrown@pacificnews.org) taught high school for 37 years.

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