Voices of the Clarion: Schools watch parents watch student

Posted: Sunday, September 25, 2005

Lately, I've been feeling like Big Brother. Not "a" big brother, but rather "the" Big Brother, of the George Orwell variety.

I blame the folks at Edline (www.edline.com), an all-too-convenient, possibly addictive Chicago-based Web service that allows parents to track how their kids are doing — what they have in the way of homework assignments, whether they're turning them in, quiz and exam scores, classroom attendance, teachers' grading policies, curriculum information and more — virtually on a daily basis. Hourly, if a teacher cares to input updated information that often.

I have a 13-year-old daughter attending Homer Middle School. I may be biased, but I see her as gregarious and bright with a preference for expressing her right-brain artistic side through music, yet capable of analysis if pushed in that direction. If she were unable to "dance with the one what brung ya," as they say down south, she'd be quite content dancing by herself. Her "different drummer" could play for the Florida A&M Marching 100. Go ahead. Look 'em up.

Left to her own devices, of course, she'd blow off homework, shirk studying, spend most of her time in conference with her friends and generally skate her way through school, blissfully oblivious to the consequences — just like her father did at that age.

Fact is, though, I've turned out reasonably well, despite growing up in a world where parents had little knowledge of the daily educational underachievements of their children. Barring a call to or from a teacher, the first inkling they might get would come from those quarterly summaries known as report cards. Only then might a piper have to be paid.

Edline has made certain Kate won't have that luxury. Not only do her teachers enter regular updates of assignments and daily grades, but they've also started sending home weekly grade reports that I have to sign. Kate gets marked on those, too, and should I delay a day, it could affect her grade.

In other words, while I'm watching her, the school is eying me! I'm being coerced into becoming a spy and this Brave New World has me just a little bit afraid.

I'm joking, of course. Fact is Edline is having the desired effect — to get parents involved. Kate's mother and I were predisposed to be such parents anyway, so naturally checking Edline has become a daily ritual.

It's easy to communicate with her teachers who are very good at responding promptly. They like working directly with parents. Teaching in the modern world can't be easy, and despite the fact Alaska has something near $30 billion in its permanent fund bank account, classes are often overcrowded. Go figure.

A Homer Middle School employee told me Edline usage there may be higher than at any other school in town using the service. For us, and I suspect for many other parents, it's producing results. Kate's grades are very good and the occasional low mark on an assignment or quiz can be addressed immediately. Thus, there are few such occasions.

I know when Kate's had a good day and when she hasn't. But none of us enjoys an unbroken string of good days and 13-year-olds are clearly no exception to that rule. Unfortunately for Kate, Edline reduces her daily ups and downs to cold, hard statistics free of that most human of elements, the excuse.

The system isn't foolproof, however.

About 10 days ago I was appalled to discover she had an unauthorized absence from her fifth-period band class. She loves band. I called the school. They said it was a mistake. Early last week she had another. Turns out she hadn't been in band after all. She'd been attending choir. Students have the option of doing both, but apparently the system wasn't accounting for that. It's being fixed.

Yesterday an F was recorded for an assignment I'd watched her complete. I e-mailed her science teacher asking if Kate had failed to turn it in, or whether she'd simply missed the point of the lesson. In short order I received the teacher's reply explaining that he'd neglected to input her actual grade. The scoring program had spun out the F in response, even though she'd been awarded a perfect score.

I tell that story not to brag about the A (OK, partly maybe), but to relate what it feels like to see an F on Edline — disappointment mixed with a tempting urge to ladle out a small measure of tough-love.

I want to call my daughter on the carpet. Of course, it's midday and she's not here. She's a mile across town attending classes, probably blissfully ignoring her schoolwork in favor of commiserating with all her other 13-year-old, seventh-grade, responsibility-avoiding, skating friends.

I know this. I remember.

Hal Spence is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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