Parent Communication 3.0

Imagine it's Sunday night. You're sitting on the couch with your spouse watching a reality show. During a commercial break, you pick up your smartphone to check Facebook and notice you have 3 new emails from your son's school. Each one is an automated messages about his grades.

He's failing.

Without much understanding of the school's online gradebook or new grading policies, you call him into the room and ask for an explanation about what's going on. You're concerned.

He's dumbfounded. There is no way he could be failing. This must be a mistake.

In fact, he asserts, it may not even be his fault. His teachers don't even teach any more; they call themselves facilitators now and expect the students to do all the learning on their own. It's very stressful and everyone is failing.

This hits a nerve. You know that the school is going through a change process; you attended a meeting about the changes at the beginning of the year. Could they be expecting too much too soon? Is your child, who has always received high marks in school, being harmed by these new changes at school?

You call a few other parents to hear how their kids are doing. The perception is mixed: some are doing better, some the same, and some worse. During each of these conversations, you share your concern for what's going on at school. Could it be the school's fault that your kid is failing?

In desperation, you send a terse email to the teachers and carbon copy the school principal.

While the actual conversations that play out may vary, the theme of the messages I receive is almost always the same:

  1. My child is not doing as well at school as he has in the past.
  2. The school has changed a lot since I was in school.
  3. My child can't articulate what he is doing wrong.
  4. The problem must be the school, program, or teachers.

This is understandable. When the only information parents have comes from their prior experience, an automated email, and a struggling child, it's tough to argue with their logic.

There's no solution to this problem; in fact, it's not even a "problem" to be solved. Rather, it's a complex circumstance of communication that needs to be addressed in multiple simple ways.

1. Reduce the default number of notifications sent out to parents by online gradebooks.

I've heard from parents that our online gradebook sends out as many as ten emails per day, by default, depending on teacher activity. Simply from a signal vs. noise point-of-view, that's far too many. While some parents tune out all emails they receive, others anxiously look into each one in fear that they are going to miss something important if they don't.

I feel sorry for the students with parents in either case.

The truth is that in a challenging school environment, grades fluctuate, especially at the start of each grading term. To notify parents of each fluctuation as they occur is unreasonable: it causes anxiety and leads to an inaccurate assessments of reality.

Schools need the capability to change these default settings to meet their school's particular needs. Or, the default ought to be set to zero; motivated parents who want notifications are more likely to turn them on than they are to turn them off.

2. Involve parents well before problems ever arise.

It's a common misconception that parents should become less involved in their children's education as they grow older. This is harmful. Teenagers need their parents support and understanding as much as they did when they were in elementary school. The only change should be what parental involvement looks like over the years.

A group of parent leaders recently told me that I need to hold a mandatory "parent bootcamp" every summer. While the logistics of this alone scare me to death, the need behind the sentiment is quite real: the high school their kids are going to is a lot different from the high school they attended. The building might be the same, but the culture, instruction, and resources are not.

Parents of 21st-century educated kids need more than a handbook and an hour-long orientation. They need consistent, quality, flexible, and varied opportunities to become involved in their children's educational development.

3.) Educate students on training their parents to use and understand the school's online gradebook.

There's a very practical reason why students should want to do this: to get their parents off their backs when grades do fluctuate. As long as the training comes well before problems arise, parents will know what to expect and when.

Parents may still send teachers emails (and we want them to), but with a more thorough understanding of the school's online gradebook, and after a practical conversation with their child, the tone of that email should change from terse to inquisitive.

4.) Urge teachers to email parents before posting grades that may have a negative impact on overall scores.

There are times when a teacher's lessons do not go as planned. Student writing, for example, does not always live up to expectations. Sometimes, students do not test as well as we'd like them to.

Without getting into an entirely different challenge, let's just acknowledge that when teachers raise performance expectations beyond that which students are accustomed to reaching, the scaffolding can sometimes fall apart.

When it does, it is essential that teachers email parents before grades are posted. And, it's equally important that this email is positive.

Here's an example email that was sent by one of my American Studies facilitators to learners (CC'ing parents) regarding a recent draft:


We have published the Background Information grades. As we stated in class, the paper was graded on each person's individual section of this portion of the White Paper. We were looking for citations, in-text citations, proper use of mechanics, and organization. We also looked to make sure you were contributing equally to your group.

We acknowledge that many of you will be disappointed by your grade, but ask that you understand this is just one phase of the project. As you take our feedback and apply it to your paper, the paper will improve and so will your overall grade for it. Remember, we are all learning and a big part of learning is struggling with the concepts until we can grasp them. I have already seen how much many of you have learned as a result of your struggles and everyday we learn more and more. Please keep that in mind as we push toward completing our rough draft in the week to come.

Have a wonderful week!

This email informs learners and parents that:

  • expectations on the project are high and will not be lowered.
  • that many struggled to meet the expectation.
  • there is no reason for alarm.
  • lessons learned through feedback can be applied to future phases of the project.
  • With effort, everything will be okay.

Imagine the same Sunday night again. This time, something is different.

Getting emails from the school's gradebook is rare, so when one comes in, you investigate it. Recalling the parent workshops you attend, you check for grade comments, look at the posted agendas, and find the rubric used to assess your son's writing.

The conversation you have with your son is more productive because you have talked about the online gradebook before and you have a common understanding about what's going on at school. Moreover, you already had a similar conversation with your son about his grades when the teacher emailed his concern earlier in the week.

Feeling a sense of relationship with the school and the teachers there, you still send an email. This time, though, it's more to learn about after-school study hours and to ask if there is anything you can do to help at home.

Your son is still failing, but you understand why and know what steps he needs to take to improve.

What more could you ask for?