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Obama-Biden on the New Report Cards

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skoolboy doesn’t fancy himself a particularly political creature, although some readers would likely argue that I’m kidding myself, in that blogging is an inherently political activity. In any event, I haven’t chosen to do a close analysis of the positions or proposed policies of the finalists in our Presidential derby. I’ll make a brief exception today, not to make political hay, but rather to try to illuminate an enduring sociological challenge.

Yesterday, Barack Obama issued a new plan for school reform, emphasizing choice and innovation, investments in technology, enhanced college readiness, incentives for improved classroom teaching, and heightened responsibility from parents and from the federal government. The last piece of this agenda calls for the creation of quarterly parent report cards to support individual learning plans. Press reports of this component of the Obama agenda conveyed the impression that such report cards would simply be a fancy repackaging of the periodic report cards that parents already receive itemizing how their children are doing in school. But the Obama plan has something more ambitious in mind, including “the concrete information [that parents] need to help improve their child’s performance each year and plan for post-high school education”:

  • Where their child is expected to perform at their grade level to be ready for high school graduation and post-high school education

  • Information about local afterschool, summer learning, tutoring, and/or mentoring programs that might provide additional assistance to students who have fallen behind and provide additional hands-on learning opportunities for students who excel in certain subject areas

  • Information about alternative public schooling options in the area that the student may be able to attend, and how those schools’ students are performing

  • Expected amount of savings a family should have for future college tuition and information about eligibility for federal and state tax credits, grants, and other financial assistance

Is more information inherently better than less information? No, skoolboy thinks, not if more information is overwhelming. This is a remarkably diverse set of objectives, and each of them would require at least a term paper’s worth of material to convey what’ s important. Providing parents with the information necessary to enable them to choose between their child’s current school and alternatives? What’s the right metric here? Value-added models of school effects? I've seen highly-educated professionals struggle to understand them. Concrete information on how a child is expected to perform at the child’s grade level? You can find this on most state department of education websites, but it’s not something that can be summarized in a page or two.

The more serious problem, though, is the assumption that providing information in and of itself creates a logic for action. The available evidence calls into question both the inclination and the ability of parents to use information to make decisions regarding their children’s schooling. Moreover, these orientations and predispositions are linked to social class. skoolboy’s long-time colleague Annette Lareau, noted here as a cool person you should know, has written extensively about the differing childrearing and schooling practices of middle-class and working-class parents. Her analyses show that middle-class parents are predisposed to see family and school as connected, and to be proactive in seeking out and evaluating educational opportunities for their children. Working-class parents care just as much about their children’s education, but they see family and school as separate, and are less likely to intervene in what they view as the responsibility of the school.

Provision of this information, therefore, could have the unintended consequence of exacerbating social class differences in schooling. Middle-class parents may be better able to make sense of the information, and will be more prepared to act on it. Working-class parents may be overwhelmed by it, and will not necessarily know how to translate the information into concrete action steps. It wouldn’t be the first policy initiative to founder by assuming that everyone behaves like the middle class.

And finally: “quarterly”? Maybe that’s just rushed copyediting…

19 Comments

The doc students in my history of childhood course last year tore it apart, and while that may in part be standard doc-student behavior, I think they had a point. Lareau's book is provocative but raises more questions than it answers in its claims of a brand-new middle-class style of childrearing.

It may be useful to think about proposals like this in terms of information design. Practically speaking, massive "report cards" become data confections that become reinterpreted. While massive information dumps may overload some, it's also likely that people will use their own filters. There are both reasonable and wildly false folk college status/quality taxonomies in all social classes in the U.S.

Hey Sherman,

Uncharacteristic for you simply to say that your students tore something apart, and you agreed, without providing any of the substance of the critique. I’ve never thought of Lareau as engaged in an historical analysis that argues that there’s something dramatically different about how class works today viz a viz yesteryear – she has always, it seems to me, stuck to what she knows best, which is description and analysis based on her careful fieldwork.

Although the study of social class in the U.S. is an active field, there’s widespread recognition that individuals identify themselves as members of different social classes; that there are objective differences in the social positions that individuals and groups hold; that there are lifestyle, attitude and values differences across class groups; and that different class groups rely on different rationales for the choices they make. None of this, I’m sure, is a surprise to you. A good summary of contemporary thinking about social class is the new volume edited by Annette Lareau and Dalton Conley, Social Class: How Does It Work? (Russell Sage Foundation, 2008).

My goodness. What an elitist critique of Obama report card idea! Of all things to attack. When is Eduwonkette coming back?

Hi Sherman and Bernard,

Sherman, I'm not sure I understand you. Did your students believe that middle class parents (to be specific, parents with higher levels of education; let's sidestep the debate about what constitutes a class for now) are not better able to navigate institutions to produce advantages for their children in ways that poor parents cannot?

Bernard, I don't see anything elitist about skoolboy's critique of the report cards. It is a fair prediction of the effects of a policy instrument that builds in assumptions about behavior that is more characteristic of parents with higher levels of education.

The argument is *not* that poor parents do not care about their kids' educations, or that they care about their kids' educations any less than affluent parents. Rather, the key point here is that poor parents are less able to mobilize resources on behalf of their children, and figuring out what to do with reams of information is a particular challenge for parents with low levels of education.

There is a lot of good evidence about this in the school choice literature; parents with higher levels of education are more likely to choose non-zoned options for their children. Poor parents are less likely to prioritize schools with higher test scores, and instead are attendant to geography/traveling distance. However, very simplified information structures (i.e. a one page flyer) can alter parents' school choices (see Justine Hastings, Doug Staiger, and Tom Kane's Charlotte experiment, for example).

Also, on my favorite topic, there is some evidence that relatively complex doctor and hospital report cards for cardiac care in NY state were used predominately by more affluent patients to identify higher performing doctors/hospitals, which crowded out poorer patients from accessing bypass surgery with these doctors and hospitals.

As an information junkie, I can't see that we should withhold information because some people might not make use of it. Instead, we should work to make it presented in a way that is most helpful to all parents.

An example would be the reading scores my kids are given. Instead of just giving a reading level, the sheet provided a list of suggested books at or near that level. Many parents told me they appreciated that list.

In talking to my students, who would be assumed to be low-info parents, I've been appalled at the lack of information given to them by their kids' schools. I think too many people make wrong assumptions.

EduDiva makes a good point, even if some parents can't even read. Why not assemble what middle-class parents know and make it available to parents who may not know what needs to be done. A small step toward giving everyone equal opportunity.

EduDiva and Falstaff, I'm not arguing for withholding information -- rather, as EduDiva suggests, it's important to present information in a form that is intelligible and useful to parents. It's easy enough (well, let me rephrase that -- it's certainly possible) to translate documents for parents into different languages; New York City, for example, routinely translates documents into Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Urdu. But that's the easy part. Figuring out what will be intelligible and useful is another matter entirely, and might warrant multiple versions of a document based on a parent's prior knowledge, experience and orientations. Matching these multiple representations of information and action steps to parents of varying backgrounds would not be an easy task. But that's not an argument for giving up on the idea of putting useful information about schools and schooling in the hands of parents.

What would be actionable with such a report card? How would parents do anything different than they already do? Is there really any new information or just pages and pages of the same old information?

It's not as if parents have a choice in schools. It is not as if most parents have a lot of free money to spend on tutoring. It is not as if there really is anything that parents can do with this information.

So we get more data. So what? More data does not make the achievement gap go away. That will only change if we improve our schools. Documenting failure is not change.

Eduwonkette,

Go back on vacation. This is ever worse than Skoolboy's elitist nonsense:

...poor parents are less able to mobilize resources on behalf of their children, and figuring out what to do with reams of information is a particular challenge for parents with low levels of education.

First of all, are report cards really "reams of information?"

Secondly, why do you assume that because you are poor, you are uneducated and aren't able to make sense out of your child's report cards?

I think both of you have been too long in academia.

Maybe its not how parents and others consume the information but how they use it and manipulate it to facilitate their children's academic success. Labaree's notion of social mobility--the dominant purpose of public schooling according—basically suggests that people compete for educational resources and that the most privileged parents and students are better able to obtain what they need from the school to assure that their children receive the advantages the school has to offer, such as placement in the top track or, as previously mentioned, the best schools in the district

So these new report cards may have the potential to serve as another mechanism that can increase educational inequality rather than alleviate it. Who can best afford the additional educational services that would be included on these cards? Who has more time? Better means of transportation? Even more access to college and college preparation services? I don't think its the people with the lowest levels of income and education and the parents whose children most often attend the lowest performing public schools. Maybe it can be better understood by an argument that accounts for various forms of capital—economic, cultural, and social. As argued by Lareau it is how capital gets enacted that matters most.

StuckinMI: Interesting points. I tend to agree with you. I think that well-educated parents are in a better position to take advantage of additional information provided by the schools. However, I also agree with eduwonkette that basic information, distributed in a simple and straight-forward format, may be helpful to all families in making good educational choices for their children. For one thing, if parents can see how their children are doing - in a very obvious way - they may be more inclined to encourage their children to put more effort into the subjects in which they are not currently succeeding.

I've been concerned that labeling these documents "report cards" would be misleading, because they're nothing like the report cards that parents receive on their children's progress -- nor even like the kinds of report cards that states and districts have constructed to report NCLB accountability status. What Obama-Biden are proposing is much more ambitious than a letter grade and a comment that "effort and/or attitude is commendable." (skoolboy's consolation prize when he got a C in woodshop.)

Hi everyone,

Erin's point about what is "actionable" here is a critical one; Edudiva gave a good example of how info can be provided in a way that suggests tangible next steps, and the crafters of these buckets of informational goodness, or whatever we want to call them, should simply be aware of these issues.

Bernard, If you are paying, I am happy to go back to vacation;) More seriously, if Obama/Biden report cards made an attempt to represent these very complex ideas in a one page format, perhaps that would lessen the gap between educated and uneducated parents. But what's being proposed is not just a few letter grades. And to push on this point about, "why do you assume that because you are poor, you are uneducated and aren't able to make sense out of your child's report cards?": the point is that more educated parents, on average, have more financial, social, cultural, and human capital to act on information, whereas less educated parents do not have access to these resources (or the same levels of these resources). For example, if your child receives a failing grade, an educated/affluent parent is well positioned to ask another partner at their workplace for a tutor recommendation (social capital), pay for these services (financial capital), meet with their child's current teacher and negotiate in ways that may improve the services that are provided in the classroom (cultural capital), and help their own child at home (human capital).

I think skoolboy's central point in this post was that we should not assume that providing information alone is going to level the playing field.

The only evidence available that demonstrably levels the educational playing field is improving what goes on in the classroom.

When compared to other countries, our school system has a higher than average acheivement gap. While no country has completely eliminated the gap, high quality school systems around the world enable all their children to learn substantially more than the typical US student *while* closing the achievement gap. Why are we not learning from their experience?

Schools can make a huge difference. So instead of insisting that parents take up the slack why are we not insisting that the schools themselves do a better job?

Eduwonkette,

I'd be happy to pay for your next vacation, except that whatever extra cash I have is going into paying for my son's tutoring support. I am not rich. But I am smart enough to know interpret how my boy is doing from the assessments I receive from school. The more information I can get, the better I like it. Please don't decide for me how much info I should receive about my son just because I don't earn as much as you. Your concern for my (our) intellectual abilities based on income, smacks of Charles Murray's bell curve. It's patronizing to say the least. When you and Skoolboy are called on it, you change the argument to say begrudgingly, "well maybe they can understand a more complex assessment, but they won't be able to afford more supports." Move on and stop trying to defend this crap. Your better than that.

Bernard: I'd like to make a comment regarding your last post. You fault eduwonkette for assuming that low-income and lower-educated parents are less likely to understand and utilize information from the schools. I have no idea what your income is, but from your comments, you appear to consider yourself in the "low-income" category.

My rebuttal: If you are a "low-income" parent, you are certainly not a typical one with regard to education. The very fact that you are taking the time to post thoughtful comments on an education policy blog puts you in a different category altogether from many other parents.

As a former teacher of low-income students, I have to say that if all parents were as involved in their children's education as you are, the achievement gap would quickly become a thing of the past.

"Schools can make a huge difference. So instead of insisting that parents take up the slack why are we not insisting that the schools themselves do a better job?"

Erin--you just made my day, and I can tell you it was a day seriously in need of being made!

I am not totally clear about what Obama/Biden's proposed reports would contain. I am personally one of the geek parents who pores over all available information on the web--but I also know that most parents aren't similarly compulsive. I do believe that there is a balance of useful information in a not overwhelming format that could be shared. My fear is that there would be a highly generic way to meet the legal requirement without much consideration for teasing out what is useful and how it might best be presented. My district is required to send out "Title I" letters. They meet this requirement (the key points are to inform parents if there school is in "improvement," why, and what they are doing about it) with a full color glossy brochure that lists all the district schools that are in improvement with a designation regarding reading or math, and the helpful information that each of these schools is making a plan to address these issues.

I have frequently requested, read and responded to the plans (again--I'm a geek), but they are not readily available, nor are most parents that interested in the detail. On the other hand, a bulleted list of the top three things that the school is doing to increase math achievement, and how much they expect scores to change as a result, would be helpful to most parents and might engage their involvement.

Margo/Mom,

Glad to hear that.

The biggest problem with the Obama/Biden proposed "solutions" to our educational woes is opportunity cost. We shouldn't be wasting time and energy on initiatives that feel like improvements but really are not. (I have similar reservations regarding the McCain/Palin inititaives as well.)

All these "solutions" make it seem as if the candidates are trying to improve education without actually doing so.

More information might be nice. But real improvements in educating our children would be infinitely better.

Real improvements need to address what goes on inside the classroom. That is where (the majority) of children learn.

Where are the proposals to improve instruction, curricula and testing so that it aligns with classroom instruction (not the other way around)?

This is all so fascinating! I read so many comments by teachers saying that it's parental involvement that needs to change, and so many comments by parents saying that it's the school that needs to change. Meantime, no significant change is happening on either end.

I'm an involved parent, and to the best I can tell my involvement is not appreciated by my childrens' teachers and administrators. Perhaps it's the old "doctor's make the worst patients" adage - as a former teacher I'm involved with improving pedagogy. To the best I can tell, obedience (from me as well as my kids) would be better received.

Here's the rub: The federal government dictates that my children WILL be schooled for x years of their lives. If I cannot afford private school or home-schooling, that schooling will be provided for me. If I cannot afford to live where the best schools are, my children will be schooled where someone else decides they will be schooled, when someone else decides they will be schooled, and by whom someone else decides they will be schooled. As a parent without financial resources, I have no say in this profound part of my childrens' lives.

Notice I call it school rather than education. That I do have control over. I can provide education at home when I feel that the school is not meeting my standards in that respect.

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