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School's e-monitoring puts a mother to the test

September 29, 2007|Sandy Banks

I was cooking dinner when the telephone rang and an unfamiliar number showed up on the caller ID.

It was TeleParent, a recorded computer voice from my youngest daughter's school letting me know that "Your child. . . has a test tomorrow in third period."

I hung up not knowing quite what to do. I poked my head in my daughter's room, where she was sitting hunched over on the floor, surrounded by textbooks, highlighters and index cards.

"You have to study," I told her, yelling over the music blaring from the computer. "You have a test in third period tomorrow." I felt for a moment like uber-mom, unexpectedly omnipotent.

My daughter looked up and rolled her eyes. "What do you think I'm doing," she said sarcastically, gesturing to notes scattered around her. "I know I have a test tomorrow."

Of course she does. The "child" in question is almost 17, a junior in high school, taking Advanced Placement classes. Old enough to drive herself to school. And she needs Mom to tell her she's got a test tomorrow?

They are ubiquitous at schools today, these e-monitoring notification systems: TeleParent, Parent Portal, Edline, Parent Connect. It's not just for little kids still getting the hang of homework routines. It's used widely for high school students -- and their parents.

Want to know when your sophomore's book report is due? You can find out on Worried that your senior's been showing up late to first period math? Sign up for Parent Connect and you can monitor attendance in every class. Wonder if your 11th-grader missed a homework assignment? Expect a phone call from TeleParent.

Today's online educational tools include a computerized debit card for the cafeteria that conveniently lets parents load it with money, then allows them to ban the purchase of snack foods and sweets and dictate how many burritos their child can buy at once.

What's next? Webcams in each classroom, so you can see if your kid is napping in biology?

I understand why most parents take comfort in these online umbilical cords. A teacher at my daughter's school polled parents at back-to-school night this month and found that 90% liked her nightly recorded homework reminders.

I imagine I might have raised my hand too. . . but with my fingers crossed. What responsible parent wants to publicly say, "I don't want to know how my child is doing in your class."

Parent Connect lets registered parents log on and monitor their child's performance in every course.

Our school's director, Brian Bauer, said about 1,500 of the school's 3,200 families have signed up. The system is a carrot for motivated students, who can track their progress in class and plot their success.

"And the stick of knowing that a parent can monitor his or her performance, conduct or attendance" each day online might keep the less-engaged student on track, he said.

Finally, there is no excuse for parents to claim ignorance about how their child is doing in class. It's right there at the click of a mouse. And like it or not, TeleParent will call the house.

Teachers have mixed feelings. Most agree that online tools can help new students adjust to big, impersonal high schools, empower parents with information and help struggling students get and stay on track.

"Kids don't always make good judgments," said English teacher Christina Hoppe, who has seen attendance jump at her tutoring sessions since she began sending recorded messages home. "This gives parents more control, allows us to work together to solve problems."

But other teachers worry that the system is used mostly by "overachievers" -- the girl who can't sleep until she logs on at night to find out how she did on the chemistry quiz; the parents of a freshman boy worried that a single B will keep him out of the Ivy League.

Some parents check every day, even every period, and keep a running calculation of their kids' grades. A dip and they're frantically e-mailing teachers demanding conferences. "They're focused on the grades, not the learning," one teacher said.

I've never been a hands-off mother; for years, homework was my second job. I still have a kitchen cabinet filled with craft supplies for school projects.

But I'm trying to shed my role as homework monitor. I've launched two daughters into college and learned something from their rocky starts: There's a fine line between concerned, supportive parent and over-involved helicopter mom.

And technology is luring parents across that line.

I've decided to decline the latest technological assists. I'm taking a pass from managing my daughter's academic life now that she's closing in on 18. A year from now, I'll be legally banned from peering at her medical records, finding out her grades in college, checking on her savings account balance.

I can tell Mr. Bauer is disappointed I haven't signed up for Parent Connect. But it has the mildly uncomfortable taint of "Big Brother." And it feels like a ball and chain to me.

I'm sure I'd feel different with a different kid. In fact, I had one -- this same one -- a few years ago. My daughter and I endured years of battles over forgotten assignments, uneven test scores, undone homework in middle school. Her principal then gave me good advice: Back off.

I did.

And I learned there's a difference between coaching a teenager toward success and robbing her of a chance to learn to succeed independently. In this hyper-competitive world, it can be hard to unleash a teen, to recognize that the best learning happens through consequences, not hectoring.

I do want to know how my daughter is doing in school. But every quiz grade, in-class assignment and homework paper?

TMI, as my daughter says. Too. Much. Information.


Where should parents draw the line when it comes to monitoring a teenager's schoolwork? Is e-monitoring an advantage or a crutch? Share your thoughts at

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