August 2, 2016

EdNavigator Insight #2: Families Are Overwhelmed with Confusing Information

By Bellwether

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On Monday, we talked about one of the big takeaways from our work helping parents navigate schools in New Orleans: A little help goes a long way. That was reassuring. It’s the whole reason we created EdNavigator.

Spending the year side-by-side with working parents brought plenty of other insights, though, and not all of them were so positive. For example:

Insight #2: Most families don’t have a clear understanding of how their kids are doing in school.

Parents aren’t clueless. They aren’t unengaged or apathetic; the families we work with are eager to do their part in helping their children succeed and pay careful attention to what schools tell them. The problem is that they are overwhelmed with confusing and contradictory information.

Our families have access to an incredible amount of information, but much of it is hard to interpret. For example, some students’ report cards are crammed full of data, including class grades and the results of formative assessments. Don’t get us wrong – data is a good thing.  But when all this information is presented in different ways (e.g., letter grades vs. percentile scores), with different scales (50 percent is a failing grade for a class; 50th percentile is average), and commonly tell different stories (e.g., B and C grades in reading but a bottom decile score in reading on the assessment), it becomes an indecipherable jumble. Comments and explanations usually take the form of very short notes, if they exist at all.

It’s also not uncommon for families to get conflicting information from teachers themselves, who tend to soft-pedal news about students’ struggles. They may downplay a poor grade or test result, leaving parents uncertain about how significant or urgent a problem may be. And when they’re uncertain, they generally take their cues from the teacher.

Put yourself in a parent’s shoes: On one hand, you have a dense test score report from a faceless institution that shows your child is performing significantly below grade level; on the other, you have a teacher you’ve known all year who tells you your child “does all his work” and “is making progress.” Whom do you trust?*

The point is not that one source of information (tests or teacher) is always right; it’s that all parents want to believe their kids are doing well, and will almost always favor sources of information that confirm that belief. They trust what teachers have to say, in the same way you trust your doctor when he says that mole is nothing to worry about. When teachers aren’t clear and direct, parents come away with 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 the full set of evidence suggests.

Our Navigators sit with families on a regular basis to walk them through academic records. Frequently, these are hard conversations; our Navigators may be sharing news that the student shows signs of substantial challenges that may have gone undiagnosed or unaddressed for years. In those instances, parents are understandably frustrated that no one told them what was happening sooner.

Surely we can do better than this.  Let’s get to work designing simple report cards that communicate information to parents clearly, help teachers be candid as well as kind, and increase engagement rather than multiplying confusion.

* A side-note lesson here: Despite all the rhetoric about over-testing and opt-outs, the frequency and amount of testing has yet to come up as a concern for any of the parents we support. Not one. Like other parents, though, they get frustrated when the results aren’t explained or when no one seems to care about them. When tests are useful — when they provide information that helps teachers and families understand how students are doing and affect what happens in school – our parents support and value them.


Ariela Rozman, Timothy Daly and David Keeling are Founding Partners of EdNavigator (@ednavigate), a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization that helps families give their kids a great education.

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