When we begin working with families, our first step is figuring out how their children are doing in school. We ask a lot of questions and help them request academic records of all kinds, including report cards, attendance logs, disciplinary reports, standardized test scores and whatever else might be available. Sometimes the documentation stretches back years. Sometimes parents and schools can only track down a few of the most recent reports.
These records are important because we’ve found that most of the parents we work with have only a hazy sense of how their kids are doing in school—and most of the time, they believe their children are doing better than they actually are.
Now, a new report by the nonprofit parent support organization Learning Heroes shows that these families are not at all alone. Based on a national survey of 1,300 parents of K-8 students, the report finds that 9 in 10 parents believe their child is performing at or above grade level, and that 75 percent say their child is getting an excellent or pretty good education. It contrasts these perceptions with the 2015 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which show that, in fact, only 36-40 percent of students are performing at the level of proficient or higher in math and reading.
What accounts for the giant gap between parents’ perceptions and the reality of how kids are actually doing? Are parents really that out of touch?
No, they’re not. They aren’t clueless, or unengaged, or naïve. The moms and dads we work with want the best for their kids and the vast majority of them work hard to do their part in supporting their children’s education. Learning Heroes also found evidence of high parent engagement: Almost two thirds (63%) of parents surveyed said that they communicate with their child’s teacher at least once a month.
When it comes to understanding their children’s progress, though, parents don’t always have the information they need, and the information they do have is often confusing and contradictory. They are generally taking their cues from teachers and school staff, who tend to soft-pedal news about students’ struggles. The test score reports they’re getting aren’t always easy to read or understand, and frequently tell a different story than the one they’re hearing from more trusted sources at school. They’re still adjusting to an entirely new set of academic standards and the tests to measure students’ progress towards them. And in many cases, no one’s told them what kinds of learning goals their child should be hitting over the course of any given year in the first place.
On top of all that, admitting that your child isn’t where she or he should be is psychologically difficult for any parent. According to the report, 43 percent of parents feel that they bear the greatest responsibility for their child’s success in school, compared to 16 percent who say their child’s teachers are responsible.
Acknowledging that your child is struggling raises a number of possible implications, all of which are deeply discomforting: “I’m not doing a good job as a parent.” “My child’s not smart.” “My school isn’t as good as I thought.” “My child’s teacher hasn’t been telling me the whole story.” It’s a hard pill to swallow, no matter what form it takes.
How do we fix this?
There’s no simple answer. Organizations like Learning Heroes, Univision, GreatSchools and NBC’s Education Nation deserve credit for producing resources and information that can help parents understand what students should be learning and how to support them. But it will take more than that.
One of the biggest challenges is that there are so many disincentives to confronting the hard truth that a student may be struggling. For teachers and school administrators, it means an uncomfortable conversation and a question—“so what are we going to do about it?”—to which they may not have a good answer. For parents, it means confronting all of those difficult implications and possibly jeopardizing a child’s grades, which may have a huge impact on their future in school. For school systems, it means creating new problems and demands at a time when many are already strapped for resources and grappling with more visible problems.
This dynamic needs to change, and everyone involved has a role to play. Every teacher should be concerned when there’s a mismatch between a child’s grades and his or her performance on other assessments. Every school should be sitting down with parents to set clear learning goals for their children and candidly assess progress on a regular basis. Every parent should know what questions to ask and have someone they can call when they want a second opinion. The conversations may never be easy, but it’s far better to have them early, while there’s still time to change course, than later, when a student is on the verge of dropping out of school or facing remedial courses in college.