Sixth grade & the Surveillance State
Posted on September 18th, 2013
t was one of the charter school’s big selling points: ‘the portal.’
More than a year ago, I sat in an informational meeting about what this particular educational choice might have to offer my son that our public option did not. A foreign language would be offered starting at seventh grade we were told, but in advance of that, the assembled parents were told we could enjoy 24/7 access to our children’s grades in real time. The daily performance of our student—homework, quiz and test scores—could be viewed through an online window at our convenience.
“Here you can always know what’s going on with your child,” one of the school’s representatives soothed we, the anxious.
I remember being nonplussed about the service at the time. It seemed like a neat enough toy, I supposed, but I’d had children in school for a while now and I thought we’d been getting by alright without monitoring their school work via the Internet.
But maybe I was missing something. Middle school meant uncharted waters for all of us. Would Marcel’s transition to sixth grade mean an interruption of the elemental connection we’d worked for years to establish? Perhaps a curtain just out of sight was waiting to drop between his life and ours at the start of this next school year, obscuring our ability to support and guide him in the same way we had in the past.
In which case: holy crap; what would we do without the portal?!!?
That fall, we enrolled Marcel in public school. For the better part of the year, he performed pretty much as he had up until the start of middle school. Then, in the spring, something happened: he started to underperform in math. This information was not provided to us through any portal, however. It was delivered by his teacher to Marcel and then, eventually, in dribs and drabs, by Marcel to us.
What followed might have been one of my favorite parts of the last year. We talked—about grades and the choices we make and our confidence in Marcel’s ability to determine his own performance and then to do the work that would reflect whatever choice he’d made. In the end, his grade reflected both his ability and the work he’d put in to bringing it up. It was the best example I’ve seen in sometime of the effectiveness inherent in strong communication between teachers and students, as well as between children and parents.
In her recent article for The Atlantic, writer and educator Jessica Lahey expounded upon her decision not to take advantage of online access to her son’s grades through PowerSchool, a program that opens that 24/7 window on grades and attendance for millions of students and parents. Lahey said she chooses to trust in her 14-year-old’s emerging sense of responsibility and the open communication they’ve established.
At open house last month, I learned that a portal-type service is being rolled out at Marcel’s public school. Two of his teachers are beta testing the service and encouraged parents to begin utilizing it. Marcel was excited to demonstrate it for me at home. I indulged him. But now that I’ve decided the service is less emblematic of a Brave New Age in Parenting rather than a real-world intrusion of the Surveillance State on my ongoing work with my children, I don’t plan to be clicking on that link again any time soon.∗