One School’s Conversation About Open Gradebook

NAIS

October 01, 2018

By Jess Hill, Buffy Baker, Armistead Lemon, Jenny Jervis, Maddie Waud, and Adam Wilsman

In the fast pace of what we do in our schools every day, every week, and every year, it is increasingly difficult to carve out time to research or even reflect on any change of policy that may be heading down the pike. We often hear or read about an educational trend or what another school is doing, or we may hear from a few parents that we should do [insert latest trend], too. At Harpeth Hall School (TN), we talk to faculty and to students, if appropriate, and take the time to consider what we think is best for our students within our school culture. Then we make a recommendation whether to change a policy.

In our wonderfully diverse coalition of girls’ schools, we espouse many different paths to reaching the summit of engaging, educating, inspiring, supporting, and mentoring our girls and young women. It comes as no surprise that the mention of an open gradebook—giving each student and parent online access to all of a student’s grades in a teacher’s gradebook, all of the time—is concerning to some girls’ school administrators. To others, it is something they incorporated years ago and are now off to consider newer trends and best practices. This topic was a clear fork in the road for us.

As one of only two girls’ schools in Nashville, with a robust community of independent, magnet, charter, and public co-ed schools, Harpeth Hall may be the only school that doesn’t have an open gradebook. We believe that considering this question within the context of our mission as an all-girls school is essential and a decision not to be taken lightly.

The Pros and Cons of Total Transparency

On the surface, a system that provides both students and parents uninhibited access and feedback on a student’s letter grade would appear to be an improvement. Students can keep track of their assessments and can easily see each grade and whether they have any missing or late assignments. There are no report card surprises; rather, the parent and student can always be aware of the student’s average and take action accordingly. An open gradebook allows for conversations between parents and students, and gives both parties an up-to-date view of the student’s achievements in each class.

Such ease of access and total transparency mirror the 24/7 online world that we live in. An apt parallel might be online banking: Log on anytime to learn your balance. The critical difference is that at Harpeth Hall, and most likely any all-girls school, we know a student’s numeric average at any given moment will never provide the whole picture of her educational journey. We have many high-achieving students, and we must consider whether such a system would best serve our particular community, or whether it would undermine our goals as an institution.

For the student who experiences anxiety about any uncertainty with regard to her grades, an open gradebook will allow for a superficial level of control via constant transparency. What might be the cost of this transparency? Right now, teachers are aware of their students’ specific anxieties because of the one-on-one conversations that happen around grades. Students can already ask for their average, grade, or test result at any time and be accommodated. More importantly, when students ask teachers directly, critical face-to-face conversations often reveal nuances for a teacher about how a student is processing an experience or developing in a class. The current system, while technically old-fashioned, preserves the teacher-student relationship and still allows students to have ownership. At this time, we can find no research showing that open gradebooks have improved students’ grades or helped teachers know their students better.

Minding the Confidence Gap

We do, however, have plenty of research on girls and confidence. Over the past four years, our school has focused on this research, namely the disconcerting truth that girls and young women who perform well in school do not always meet with the same success in the workplace. In order to address this confidence gap, we have identified several primary inhibitors we see in our students. Three of these five inhibitors could be exacerbated by an open gradebook.

Perfectionism: High-achieving students with perfectionist tendencies are more likely to equate their self-worth with their grades. Grades become powerful extrinsic motivators for these students, who begin to value successful performance over learning. Over time, the joy of learning diminishes as they focus narrowly on the numbers and improving the numbers. We are concerned that an open platform will drive students’ focus further toward numbers. At Harpeth Hall, we never want a student to define herself by a number.

Comparison: Equally concerning is the possibility of promoting an obsessive-compulsive behavior focused on results. Teenage girls are already online all the time, checking the number of likes on Facebook and Instagram. Refreshing the open gradebook page is an added reality for many girls across the country today, and we might spare our students from this option by giving them the space to think about something more than their grades. Tendencies toward perfectionism exist without an open gradebook, and we think they would worsen without the intervention of teachers should we go to an open system.

Fear of failure: Research shows that girls are especially prone to the fear of failure because of “good girl” conditioning. Girls avoid risks and value image over learning, and this avoidance diminishes confidence. Yet we are learning that college admission is becoming increasingly more interested in a prospective student’s ability to handle disappointment, adversity, and struggle rather than just seeing a grade point average. Girls who develop perseverance, tenacity, and a healthy sense of risk-taking are less vulnerable to depression and anxiety. This leads to a more successful experience in college and beyond. We hope our girls will have healthy, successful life experiences, and thus we want them to take safe risks in our classrooms, to have an opportunity to experience and recover from failure, and to develop skills that allow them to persevere.

Every day our faculty members are on the frontlines of our students’ emotional health and well-being. Harpeth Hall remains a progressive school with innovative teachers, and yet we hesitate to adopt the latest open gradebook trend. Based on our research and experience teaching girls, we question how an open gradebook would benefit our students’ well-being and emotional health or increase their ability to own their successes and failures, take risks, or succeed dramatically better in the classroom or more importantly, at life.

I Will Not Check My Son’s Grades Online Five Times a Day

Here’s something we’ve considered implementing at Sacred Heart – we’re not sure it supports Goal V, personal growth in an atmosphere of wise freedom, though.

Thoughts?

More and more schools are adopting student information software, allowing millions of parents to monitor their kids’ attendance and academic progress. But should they?

Last week I received a letter from my son’s high school that started like this:

Dear Parent/Guardian,

PowerSchool, our student information system, allows you to create your own account and use a single password to access information for all of your children who attend school in our district. This account allows you to keep up to date with your students’ academic progress, attendance, historical grades, etc.

I believe the letter goes on to detail procedures for setting up an account that would allow me to track nearly every aspect of my son’s academic life. I say, “I believe,” because I have not read the rest of the letter. Our family had known the letter was coming, and we’d already discussed how we were going to handle it.

My husband and I handed the letter over to my 14-year-old son with the promise that we will not be using the system to check on his grades or attendance (or anything else). In return, he promised to use the system himself and keep us apprised of anything we need to know.

We’re not the only family that’s had to decide what to do with “student information systems.” According to Bryan Macdonald, senior vice president of PowerSchool, 70 to 80 percent of the schools that use PowerSchool choose to implement the parent portal, which represents about 9 to 10 million students. “Our best data suggests that over 80 percent of parents and students who have access – meaning their school has enabled remote access – use the system at least once a week…and many users check multiple times a day.”

When I posted a challenge on Facebook encouraging friends to join us in eschewing PowerSchool, I received many comments and emails, none of them neutral. Either PowerSchool and its ilk are best thing that’s ever happened to parenting or the worst invention for helicopter parents since the toddler leash.

Several parents reject the technology on the grounds that they want to talk to their kids face-to-face about school:

I am fairly certain that the fear of facing me with bad academic news was the only thing that kept my kids in line. Take away that moment when they have to look us in the eye, admit to not having studied and the ensuing results….not on your life! -Lisa Endlich Heffernan, mother of three and parenting blogger at Grown & Flown

We don’t use the info, either. We just talk to our kids. -Elena Marshall, mother of eight

Teachers and administrators have mixed feelings:

I like that parents can check grades and I encouraged them to do so. I feel that open communication between home and school is essential in educating children, and only sending midterm and final grades home makes grades seem like a big secret. With parent access on PowerSchool, there are no secrets.  I am bothered, however, by parents who CONSTANTLY check…sometimes 5 or 6 times a day. These parents tend to be the ones who push their children the hardest and are the first to complain when grades aren’t entered on the DAY an assignment is due. As a language arts teacher with 60 papers to grade, I just can’t do that!  I’m not sure parents realize the school can see how many times they access the portal. –Mindi Rench, mother of two and junior high literacy coach and education blogger

Teacher Gina Parnaby tweeted that PowerSchool is a “Bane. Stresses my students out to no end. Freaks parents out b/c they see grades not as a communication but as judgment.” Teacher Dana Salvador wrote in an email that i-Parent, the parent portal her school has implemented is a moot issue for her. This is not because the parents have not chosen to use the software, but the parents of her low-income, ESL students don’t speak English and there is no Spanish version of the software.

For a sampling of what students think about PowerSchool, one need look no far than Twitter.

Ultimately, for many, including mother and teacher Christiana Whittington, the choice to use the unfettered access depends on the child.

I think this may be best viewed as a case-by-case scenario. Our son sailed through school effortlessly with excellent grades but hit one very hard. He procrastinated telling us about his issues. By the time we found out that he was struggling, it was really too late to save him. If we had had the opportunity to check on his grades through the portal, we could have easily prevented this. Our other daughter, being dyslexic, has always struggled in school. She had not yet come to grips with the fact that she is a bright person in spite of her disability and was embarrassed about lower grades especially in the highly competitive environment. For her, we would definitely have chosen to access the portal. I think overall this is a good thing but it can also completely undermine trust between parent and child. You really need to know your child.

For the time being, I choose to trust in the power of open communication and my son’s emerging sense of responsibility and character.  When I handed him the envelope, and asked him to keep me in the loop, he thanked me and returned to his room to do his homework. He has four years of high school ahead of him, and only time will tell if my faith in him is warranted. Until then, I plan to keep my hands out of what should be his business, his responsibility, and his life.