The house is finally quiet, the kids gone. She pours her coffee and slides in front of the computer. Pulse quickening, she grabs the mouse, clicks the bookmarked page, clacks out her password—and steels herself for what she’ll see.
“I actually get this adrenaline rush as it’s loading,” said the mother of two. “It’s like you’re watching the stock market. I’m almost holding my breath going, ‘Is it going to be good?'”
She’s peering at her kids’ grades via an online gradebook, where today’s students—and their hand-wringing parents—can monitor scores for every assignment, in every class. More and more middle schools and high schools across the nation are adopting these grade-reporting systems. And it’s churning up anxiety among parents I know.
“I checked obsessively when I first had access to it and cursed those teachers who didn’t update regularly,” confessed a friend on the school board. “Then I realized the system administrator could see which parents were accessing their child’s grades morning, mid morning, noon, afternoon, evening, midnight, and at 2 a.m.—and I backed off in shame.”
The system aims to encourage responsibility by letting students track their own progress. But it can foster parental hovering, too.
“Looking at your child’s grades is not micro-managing,” insisted another mom I know, who checks often because her son doesn’t. “It’s like doing reconnaissance. Can parents ever have too much info about their teens?”
Here’s a dad who loves the tool: “When we were kids, there was so much stress not knowing what our running grade was or where we stood. This makes sure that kids don’t fall behind or get too far off track.”
It’s easy to abuse, though.
“I would have been a mess if my parents had been tracking every 1/10th of a percent change in my grades,” said a high-school mom who used to check regularly and quit cold turkey.
For me, the screen view makes it too easy to focus on the strike-outs over the home-runs. I find myself scanning past the As and Bs to zero in on rare Cs and Ds—the same way I scan my inbox for the most urgent emails.
Hence did a recent, spontaneous 9 p.m. foray onto the Web with my son quickly devolve into an argument that left us both in tears, debating the value of the Pythagorean theorem in the grand scheme of life, and flinging trite phrases like “apply yourself” and “off my back” that truly ought never be flung.
We both had to wonder: Is instant, 24-hour, exhaustive information too much information?
“What happens with these online grade systems, like any technology, is parents feel overwhelmed and outgunned,” said parenting expert Caroline Knorr. She works with Common Sense Media, an organization that advises parents, educators, and kids about media use. “New tools like this have a way of sneaking up on us. They preempt us before we can figure out how to deal with them.”
She recommends asking teachers outright, “How am I supposed to be using this? What do you expect from us?” and establishing rules within each family about who will check the grades, how often, and how best to follow up on missing assignments, grading errors, etc.
My greater concern stems from vivid memories of bounding into the house brandishing an A+ test—or skulking home with an F in my backpack and a “don’t freak out” speech at the ready. Online gradebooks make such moments obsolete, and I can’t say exactly what’s lost when a child no longer gets to surprise her parents with her successes, or has to personally present them with her failures.
But I know that whatever it is can’t be won back by clicking “reload.”