See All the Implications

Educators complain frequently about helicopter parents (parents who are always hovering around their children, always stepping in, overly involved). Educators also want parents to be involved and engaged with school and their child’s education. Of course, we only want them to do so in the ways that we want.

from Wesley Fryer’s flickr

I have to wonder how often we’re a part of creating helicopter parents as well as children who are unable to take responsibility or advocate for themselves. I heard a story on NPR last week about school systems texting parents when students grades were dropping or students were missing assignments. It made for an ugly commute home because I was so irritated. Then that story showed up on KQED’s MindShift blog.

Take it away, Peter Bergman and Eric W. Chan of Teachers College, Columbia University:

“In a field experiment across 22 middle and high schools, we [sent] automated text-message alerts to parents about their child’s missed assignments, grades and class absences. The intervention reduces course failures by 39% and increases class attendance by 17%.”

That’s from a draft paper they’ve just released. They say the intervention was especially helpful for students who were struggling academically. The students’ GPAs improved by a quarter of a point on a four-point scale. And students were more likely to stay in school.

That definitely sounds good. Students are getting better grades. Students are staying in school. That’s hard to argue against.

But I’m going to do so anyway. These researchers found these significant results at the high school level, although they tried the same strategy with middle schoolers. It didn’t seem to make the same difference there. Could that be because middle school students have parents who are paying attention already and these texts aren’t telling them anything terribly new?

High school students still need parental support. There is no doubt. However, they are close to heading off to college or to work, to some form of independence. If their parents have been receiving text messages every time they miss an assignment (or maybe only after they’ve missed a few assignments) is this helping them take control of the problem? Why not send the text messages to the students?

What’s our biggest concern as educators? Our students’ grades? Or our students’ ability to be independently responsible? I think both are important, but this strategy of texting parents is only supporting one of those goals. We are, as usual, valuing grades and test scores over everything else. That’s one small piece of a human being.

When we implement strategies like this one, we need to be thoughtful about what it means. Not just what it means for the goal it is addressing, but what it means on a larger scale. I think we quickly move forward with things all the time that help in one area but harm in others. We aren’t paying enough attention to the harm.


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