Publications

Muddled: How Confusing Information from Schools Is Failing American Families

For most American families, educational success means a college degree. As parents, the vast majority of us expect our children to attend college, and we overwhelmingly believe they’re on track in school to get there.

Yet it’s clear that many of our kids are not on track at all. Consider that only 39 percent of the more than 2 million students who took the ACT in 2017 earned college-ready scores in at least three of the test’s four subjects. Huge numbers of those who do go to college arrive unprepared and in need of costly, time-consuming remediation before they can do college-level work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly half of them do not earn a degree within six years.

Why do so many of us think our children are doing just fine in school, when so many of them really aren’t?

Today, EdNavigator is publishing a new examination of this critical question: Muddled: How Confusing Information from Schools Is Failing American Families. In it, we suggest a simple explanation: Families tend to overestimate how their children are doing in school not because they are inattentive or disengaged, but because the information they receive about student progress is a ridiculous mess.

Like our previous paper, Lost in the Crowd, Muddled draws on our daily experiences supporting families in New Orleans and Boston, where we partner with local employers and community organizations to bring expert educational support to hundreds of working parents. Through these partnerships, participating employees are connected to a personal education advisor—a “Navigator”—who meets with them at work or through a mobile app to answer questions, offer advice, and help them achieve their educational goals.   

In Muddled, you’ll meet four students whose families have received support from our Navigators. Their experiences demonstrate how challenging it can be for parents to get a clear picture of how their children are doing in school. They include:

  • Michael, a third grader whose report card was so full of misleading ratings and poorly explained test results that his mother had no idea he was multiple grade levels behind in reading;
  • Alfredo, a second grader whose family only speaks Spanish—but whose failing grades appeared only in English report cards;
  • Tameka, a dedicated middle schooler with superlative class grades but solidly average test scores;
  • Gregory, a sixth grader grappling with ADHD who seemed to be doing well, until his parents and Navigator dug deeper. 

Muddled builds on research by organizations like Learning Heroes, which has found that parents nationwide are not receiving clear information on their children’s educational performance. Through detailed case studies and real-life academic record artifacts, we show how these students’ parents get lost in difficult-to-interpret report cards, contradictory test results, and well-intentioned but misleading messages from educators. As a result, they overestimate the performance of their children, miss warning signs of major problems, and pass up learning opportunities.

Collectively, these information challenges reflect a profound and alarming inattention to the needs of families, who want clear, coherent information in order to engage fully in their children’s education and keep them on track for success. Instead, faced with confusing data points and mixed messages, families get muddled—uncertain what to believe, how to help, which path to take.  

What’s the answer? Clearly, poor information by itself is not the reason some students struggle. It is a critical piece of the puzzle, though. Each student is a unique story. Today, that story isn’t being told very well to the audience that most needs to hear it. We believe every family deserves messages about student progress that meet these six standards:

  • Clear. Too often, the burden of analyzing and synthesizing student performance information falls on parents rather than educators. What’s the headline?
  • Coherent. Give context for what each piece of information means, where it came from, and what it says about the student’s overall performance and trajectory in school. Explain discrepancies, where they appear.
  • Human. When messages are delivered in plain language through credible, front-line educators such as a teacher or principal, they are most likely to be heard – even if the messages are difficult.
  • Actionable. Parents put more pressure on themselves than any other party. They desperately want to help their children. But how? Tell them what they can do, specifically.
  • Timely. Communicate less frequently, with greater care. Many schools issue four progress reports and four final report cards each year. What if there were just 2-3 points of formal communication, but each one came with better commentary and clarity?
  • Honest. It is always hard to communicate disappointing news, but educators do a grave disservice to students and parents when they gloss over problems. Failing to report worrisome information should be as unthinkable a violation as a doctor ignoring an alarming blood test result.

Everyone involved in education has a role to play in clearing up the muddle, including educators, school and district officials, education industry executives, and parents themselves. Better information won’t solve every problem, but of the many obstacles on the path to education systems that work for more of our students, it’s one of the easiest and most obvious challenges to overcome.

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