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How Data Can Bring Parents and Teachers Together

Note: This week, contributers to the Smarter Schools Project will be guest-blogging. Today, our guest-blogger is digital learning specialist Kerry Gallagher, who currently serves as director of K-12 Education for ConnectSafely and will be speaking at SXSWedu about education technology policies.

When it is time for the whirlwind of parent-teacher conferences, most educators cringe. It means a full day—7:30am to 3pm—of 10 minute snapshots with individual parents.

Teachers take hours preparing for them by printing out grade reports, reviewing student work, and pulling together folders of evidence. Parents walk in hoping for good news, and no surprises.

It doesn't have to be this way.

When I started teaching over a decade ago, that conference situation that made both teachers and parents anxious seemed like the only option. Thankfully, digital tools and mobile devices have made it possible for parents and teachers to have open lines of communication about student progress anytime. No need to wait for a 10 minute slot once per semester. Here's how:

Teacher Websites

Teacher websites are easier to build than ever. There are simple drag-and-drop platforms available for free or with school site licenses. Teachers no longer need to be experts at HTML to create their own. With a little coaching, educators are building websites that are well organized, constantly updated, and provide a clean and professional user experience for parents. Parents have access to online resources, assignment details, study guides, and due date calendars that are embedded in or linked to teacher websites. Most platforms are even mobile-friendly, so parents are able to check in while waiting outside school in the pick up line.

Open Online Gradebooks

Teachers have been posting grades online for a while, but open online gradebooks with live updates are newer. Parents no longer have to wait until scheduled end-of-quarter or mid-quarter grade updates. They can sign into a secure portal and check their child's grade anytime. This does take some getting used to for both parents and teachers. Teachers cannot expect busy parents to be checking up on their child's grade daily, or even weekly. Conversely, parents cannot expect overtaxed teachers to turn around and post grades for work handed in instantly. As long as parents and teachers take time to get to know one another, online gradebooks that are updated live ensure that there are no surprises and any misunderstandings can be sorted out before grades close for the semester.

Formative Assessment Tools

Formative assessment data, the information teachers gather about student learning in between the summative scores that go in the gradebooks, are the data that really show daily progress. Teachers use digital tools to help students gamify, collaborate, and even backchannel during day-to-day class time. Thanks to these tools and activities, teachers can review students' answers, interactions, and ideas in real time or after the lesson. Teachers get meaningful insight into whether their students have already mastered or are struggling with new skills and content. The next step is to share this data with parents. Parents don't want to be overwhelmed, but a check in here and there with evidence of progress or concerns between marking periods is helpful. As a classroom teacher, I made a point of reaching out to at least one parent a day via email. When I could share formative data, it made that contact more personal for the parents and helped them get real insight into their child's day-to-day learning experiences.

Digital Portfolios

Online portfolios that feature academic and creative work are becoming the norm at the college level. It is common for college graduates to apply for their first career or a graduate level program with a digital portfolio showcasing their growth. Why not give our students a chance to start building this digital record a bit earlier? Not only will it help them show a longer period of growth, but it can help parents track and look back at their child's work last month, six months ago, a year ago, etc. I started having my students turn in work this way using blogs about five years ago. Only the student, parents, and I could see the digital record of their work. Whenever I received a parent email with a question or an impromptu request for a meeting, I just pulled up the digital portfolio and referenced it as we communicated about that student. It made it easy for the parents and for me because we had plenty of evidence to reference. No mysteries. Eventually, after making sure parents and students were informed, many chose to make their blogs public.

Transitioning to this type of ongoing, digital conversation requires some work on the front end, but the pay-off is great. Parents have an important role to play in their children's education, and opening up frequent lines of communication through the use of technology ensure that students have the support they need both in the classroom and at home.

--Kerry Gallagher

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