Do student information systems — online services that track students’ grade — help kids learn? It all depends on whom you ask. Experts on education and child development, parents, teachers, and students clash on whether or not web-based monitoring systems serve children’s educational interests or actually hinder learning.
Student information systems are web-based software programs that schools buy to help manage student and teacher data. One of the most popular is PowerSchool, which claims to support 12 million students from all 50 states, but smaller systems like RenWeb and openSIS provide similar services to public and private schools around the country. “Every single transaction in the form of attendance, grade book, report card, discipline, billing and transcript is recorded,” openSIS promises in its company literature. Teachers report grades and attendance on-line, kids can log in at any time to check their status, and parents have open access to their child’s performance, including not only homework, quiz, and test grades, but also comments from teachers and updates on tardiness. Parents can sign up to receive email notifications as often as once a day.
But having access to all that data is not always helpful, according to some critics, because the focus of school and learning is reduced to numbers and graphs.
“It turns every act of learning into a performance,” said Dr. Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of Teach Your Children Well and The Price of Privilege, who said she calls the big student information system Power Snoop. For all the data and feedback they provide, student information systems interfere with learning.
“Learning requires involvement, interest, making mistakes—this is a poor substitute,” she said. The singular focus on grades that these systems encourage turns learning into a competitive, zero-sum game for students. “What we’re saying is, how do you compare to the kid sitting next to you, in terms of grades?” Further, by adopting these systems, schools make a strong statement about their values: “We’re ignoring best practices in child development, and saying what we do care about are grades.”
My own college-bound high school senior captured the mixed message that student information systems deliver. On the one hand, he liked it because it kept him on track with his grades and assignments. But did it help him learn? “School isn’t about learning,” Jeff said. “It’s about doing well.”
These up-to-the minute reports on a child’s grades also have a way of directing family conversation and focus to metrics at the expense of the subjects being taught or the other, non-academic developments occurring in a kid’s life, which might actually be weighing more heavily than the results of a bio quiz. “It looks like a disproportionate interest in this one aspect of their development,” she said. This comes at a time when research suggests that kids are more anxious about grades than their family or social lives. “That’s your greatest stress, and you get to check it five-six times a day?” Levine said.
Student information systems have a dangerous seductive quality as well. When Levine’s children were in high school, she found herself logging in compulsively to check their grades. Unable to stop herself, she finally disengaged from the system altogether. Levine would like to see schools stop using information systems entirely, just as roughly half the schools around the country gave up on class rank. “This should be next,” she said. “It’s even worse.”
For their part, parents asked about the uses of student information systems dismissed the notion that they helped their children learn. “It has nothing to do with learning, everything to do with measuring—which is all anyone cares about,” said Kathleen Feeney, mother of tenth- and twelfth-grade boys. “Learning? Interesting question,” wrote Kristen Pierotti, whose four school-age children log into PowerSchool with varying degrees of frequency. “It’s all about GPA!” said Terry Jacobs, whose college-age son advised his younger siblings to stay on top of their online tracking to better manage their end-of-quarter grades.
But these same parents were quick to point out some benefits to the data systems. While they might not aid academic learning, the systems do encourage kids to be responsible for their performance in the classroom, many said. “Jeremy definitely feels more ‘ownership’ of his academic results, ‘brand’ and ‘profile’ through PowerSchool,” said Cheryl Barr about her tenth-grade son. “I do believe it helps them to see their grades in real time, and they work harder when they see they have slipped or need to pull up a grade to get into a desired range,” Pierotti said. It also helps keep teachers accountable to their students, said Maribeth Bowen, whose twelfth-grade daughter checks in regularly to be sure her grades are recorded accurately. What’s more, these online grading systems remove any surprises from the quarterly report card, Pierotti added.
Angel Harris, co-author of The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education, agrees that student information systems have the potential to be useful for kids. “It’s a good diagnostic for students, so they know when they’re missing points or assignments,” he said. As for parents’ use of the systems to oversee their children’s grades, he’s less sanguine. What matters is how parents respond to the information they encounter. “The punitive response”— punishing, withholding, berating — “is associated with declines in achievement,” Harris said.
What about teachers? Eleanor Lear taught English at Summit High School in New Jersey, and she dreaded using PowerSchool when it was first introduced. “I was really afraid of it,” she said. But Lear discovered that it helped keep her timely with grading and compelled her students to take ownership of their work. “The learning isn’t about English, but it’s about taking responsibility for themselves,” she said. “There’s no more Hail Marys at the end of the quarter, hoping to pull out an A- after getting all Cs,” she said. “It takes away their excuses.”
Not that it was all good. “For parents who had a propensity to obsess over grades, it gave them license to obsess even more,” Lear said. The system also rewarded grade-grubbers, she said, and drew students’ attention to tiny missed homework assignments rather than the subject. In addition, Lear squirmed over having her grade book open to students, parents and administrators. “There’s no room for you to apply your judgment,” she added.
Madeline Levine says these systems undermine what teachers and parents ultimately value. “Everything we hear about 21st century business, from business leaders, is that they want collaborators, communicators. And none of that comes through when the only thing schools focus on is metrics,” she said. Learning how to collaborate comes from working on group projects and absorbing cultural norms that promote cooperation and teamwork. “All this does is cultivate cynicism,” she said.