Thursday, March 4, 2010

Five Big Issues for Parents

This past week we conducted focus groups with one of the school districts that participated in our Parent Engagement and Satisfaction Survey in December 2009. The focus groups included over 100 parents from eight different public schools including a mix of elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. The results of our research – including survey benchmark data and qualitative findings – will be released by the end of March 2010 in our comprehensive K-12 Parent Engagement and Satisfaction Research Report. Here are a few common themes that we heard from parents:

1. Online Student Information is Important

Increasingly, parents are relying on the Internet to access information regarding their child’s school life. Parental use of email as a communication medium with teachers is increasing. In many school districts, parents are able to log into an electronic grade book to access information on their student’s grades, attendance, or – in some cases – scheduled tests and assignments. Parents are leveraging text message alerts to let them know when their student’s grade drops below a specified level, an absence or tardy is recorded, or when a missed assignment is logged into the grade book system by the classroom teacher.

Parents and students alike are increasingly requesting teachers to post course outlines, homework, study resources, and course calendars onto teacher-specific web pages. The use of teacher websites for parents to access information on their child’s courses has become vitally important. Teachers who do not keep their websites up to date are increasingly feeling the pressure from parents and students to do so. Given the ease of use associated with today’s web publishing platforms, the technology barriers for teachers of all ages is much decreased.

These online education resources are leveraged by parents more in secondary schools than in elementary schools. This makes sense when considering that a parent of a high school student may need to keep track of seven teachers and classes. Elementary school parents still use these technologies too. However when dealing with just one classroom teacher (in most cases) for each child, parents of elementary students sometimes find it easier to just talk.

2. Bullying and Discipline
Parents are very sensitive to the safety of their children. The issues that parent refer to in school are threats of physical violence, emotional / status related bullying, or the existence of drug and alcohol. All of these are big issues for parents.

True, the more serious threats to student’s well-being happen in secondary schools. However parents of elementary school students are concerned about bullying and the emotional damage it may cause to their children. Many elementary schools have proactive programs to educate students about bullying. These programs typically teach students how to identify bullying and what to do if the student is bullied. Parents appreciate these programs where they exist. In some schools, there is a lack of a formal character development or anti-bullying program. Oftentimes, these are the schools that need it the most.

High schools and middle schools often have more complex issues related to discipline and safety. Physical violence against students becomes more of a fear for parents in secondary schools. The primary complaint of parents is that the school is not more aggressive about catching and punishing students that cause problems and violate school rules. Parents often will describe school administrators as unwilling to make tough decisions regarding student discipline. Sometimes the criticisms of parents are founded but many times their criticisms are not accurate. High school principals have a difficult job in dealing with discipline. The future of a person often hangs in the balance when principals are considering expulsion or suspension for a student. On the balance, school leaders seem to make good choice. Communicating the wisdom of these choices to parents is not always possible.

3. Lack of Challenging Work

As educators, we know that challenging each individual student to his/her fullest potential is difficult. Differentiating instructional across a large class takes considerable skill and preparation. It is challenging to ensure that all students have work which pushes them as an individual. Teachers and schools work hard in pushing kids. Despite these efforts and according to our focus groups, not all schools do a great job of challenging the individual student.

Elementary schools, middle schools and high schools are equally mentioned with children not having challenging works. Parents with students of various ability levels will comment on this lack of challenging work – depending on the school. In some schools, the high achieving students are forced to do the same work that all other students do without regard for their aptitudes. Parents fear that their gifted children will become bored with school. Likewise parents with average students will – in some schools – comment that the school works too much with struggling or gifted students leaving out the students “in the middle”.

4. Lunch Nutrition

Parents are rightfully concerned about what their children eat. Many parents will comment on the lack of nutritious food options in their child’s school cafeteria. Our researchers have not yet cross-referenced parent comments on the school menu with any nutritional analysis to verify claims. That said, we take it as a positive sign that so many parents are mindful of what their children eat.

5. Homework

School homework is a big issue in some schools. Homework becomes a particularly sensitive issue in high school when students may have seven classes in a day. These high school students are typically involved in extra-curricular activities that also require significant time before or after school. Thus students are pressed for time but oftentimes significant amounts of homework will be due on the same day from multiple classes.

For families that are focused on sending their children to college, homework is often a even bigger issue. These families (and students) recognize the importance of school, recognize the importance of grades, and often have rigorous a course load. In addition, students with college goals typically need to be involved in several extra-curricular activities.

One of the best practices that appears to deal with this most effectively is quite simple. Teachers are required to post the homework for the week on their website by Friday night. This encourages students to take personal responsibility over how to budget their time for homework, school and extra-curricular activities. And what is the worst that can happen? Students do their homework before the course discussion or lecture. We can think of worse things!