So Much More Than Letters and Numbers

I saw the title of this article, “Are Parent-Teacher Conferences Becoming Obsolete?“, and was surprised the direction.  I was expecting the article to talk about moving away from the “traditional parent conference” (sitting around for 10-20 minutes talking about a child’s experience in school) to something more student-led.  Instead, it shared how a parent portal was used in place of parent-teacher conferences:

A school district north of Denver is doing away with the traditional parent-teacher conferences this year, instead urging parents to log in to a website to find out how their children are doing.

…Frustrated parents and teachers, however, said in interviews with Chalkbeat—which produced this story in partnership with The Atlantic—that the new online system is either confusing or incomplete and can’t replace face-to-face interaction.

“Teachers would tell me at conferences what I needed to help my son with, they would tell me how he was behaving and everything they did in class, like what they were studying,” said Carolina Rosales, a mother of two elementary-school kids. “The portal might tell me he failed an assignment, but what does that tell me?”

In no way am I criticizing the district because I know that education articles often are missing pieces of information, but if it is 100% true that an online portal is used in lieu of conferences, I am concerned that we are creating a culture that is more about numbers and letters, than it is about people.

The article also reminded me of an article by Jessica Lahey, “The Downside of Checking Kids’ Grades Constantly.” One of her concerns (made obvious from the title) is the constant checking that can become a norm of these portals, where grades become more like following the stock market, but Lahey also shares her concern that these portals shift our focus on the wrong thing:

While there’s limited evidence on the benefit of grading portals on academic achievement, there is plenty of research to show that extrinsic motivators, such as grades, as well as parental surveillance and control, are detrimental to kids’ long-term motivation to learn and undermine their relationships with teachers.

When we focus our attention on real-time, up-to-the-second reporting on the portal, we elevate the false idols of scores and grades and devalue what really has an impact on learning: positive student-teacher relationships, relevance and student engagement.

The opportunities that technology affords us in our world today are amazing, but I am concerned that too often we use it to replace face-to-face interaction, not enhance it.  I shared the following in “The Innovator’s Mindset“:

There are so many things that we cannot communicate through an online portal that is focused mostly on delivering grades.  The evidence of learning and growth as a human being goes beyond what any test score or academic assessment can provide.

As an administrator, the school secretary gave me a piece of advice that I will never forget.

“Any time you call home and you have a concern about a student, just remember that you could destroy a parent’s entire world.  Make sure that every conversation you have with parents, they know that their child is valued.”

I took this advice with me and went out of my way to share what I valued in the child and the positive stories before I got into some of the harder conversations.   It was also why I spent so much time in classrooms and the hallways of schools to get to know kids. The worst way to start a conversation as a principal with a student who may have made a mistake was with the phrase, “What is your name again?”  The time an educator spends to know students and parents (as well as colleagues) is an investment that will come back to them tenfold in the future.

If the technology takes away our human connection that is crucial for the development of our students, it is not worth it. Using tools like this can help to add to a conversation, but it cannot be the conversation on its own.  We cannot reduce our students to becoming letters and numbers.

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