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TEACHER-PARENT COMMUNICATION REFORMS

Japanese
When American high school teachers are asked to identify the changes needed to improve student success, parent support is mentioned more often than any other factor. There are a growing number of parents who refuse to return phone messages, appear unwilling to reinforce school codes of conduct, and ignore requests from teachers to attend conferences. This lack of cooperation coincides with a rise in classroom misbehavior and national polls indicating that nearly half of parents fear for the safety of their children while at school.

Motivating Parent Accountability
Teachers are agreed that only parents have the authority to fulfill their unique role of leadership in guiding the social and emotional development of adolescents. Consequently, faculties throughout the nation are struggling to find ways of motivating parents to remain involved with the education of their teenagers. It appears that many families expect schools to raise their children for them.

In response, some boards of education are letting parents know they will not be allowed to transfer their family responsibilities to teachers at school. For example, the Chicago public schools send reports every five weeks to parents of 430,000 students in kindergarten through grade twelve. These reports grade parents as good, satisfactory or less than satisfactory based on criteria such as: Does the student wear presentable clothes? Does the student get enough sleep so she or he is alert? Are absences minimal? Does the student come to class on time? Is homework completed daily? Does the student avoid fighting and harassment? Does the parent attend conferences with teachers? Community volunteers visit parents who receive low grades and encourage them to devote greater attention to supporting education. Mothers and fathers who consistently get failing marks are invited to classes where they can learn more effective methods of family supervision.

A related strategy to motivate parent accountability is used by Baltimore, Maryland public schools. Parents are asked to complete self-reports judging how well they fulfill certain obligations for student welfare. The criteria for self-appraisal include making sure a student has school supplies needed for classes, checking to make sure that homework tasks are finished, modeling how to treat other people fairly, and responding to messages sent from teachers. Students bring the parent self-rating reports to the administration office at school. To maximize return rates for surveys, students who submit evaluations of parents are eligible to participate in raffles featuring prizes that are appealing to their age group.

The disengagement of parents is also worrisome for policymakers in education who believe that, until more families establish and enforce the rules of good behavior at home, reforms at school cannot succeed. The public recognizes that parents can have a powerful influence on minimizing misconduct in the classroom. A randomly-selected national sample of 1,000 adults was asked to identify the single most important thing that could be done to reduce school violence and peer abuse. Parent involvement was identified more often than other deterrents. Similarly, amount of parent support was perceived as the most important reason why certain schools are able to outperform others.

Studies have concluded that the rates of remediation, repeating a grade, suspension and/or expulsion from school are much lower when parents monitor the academic progress of adolescents. Students with involved parents demonstrate more academic motivation and greater commitment to learning after graduation than do peers with less involved parents. Even though most parents recognize success at school is the key to a better future for their child, they often underestimate their own potential to favorably influence learning.

Parents and teachers who work together are less inclined to blame one another for lack of student motivation, poor performance or misconduct. Accordingly, teachers are advised to establish partnerships with parents and keep them informed of progress. The need for strong home-school communication is underscored by responses from 250,000 students that revealed that, between grades 6 and 12, there is a significant decline in family dialogue. Decrease in parent-child time spent together reduces conversations about issues related to school, questions on what is being learned in courses, efforts to link lessons from the classroom with applications to everyday life, and help in completing homework.

Obstacles to Teacher-Parent Communication
Along with the decline in parent-child dialogue beginning in adolescence, there is also a reduction of contact between teachers and parents when students enter high school. Lack of communication is compounded by the methods schools rely on to contact parents; they are limited in reliability or no longer effective. Some of these limitations include:
  • Most parents work so they cannot be contacted at home during the daytime.
  • Some parents do not have electronic mail or phone answering machines.
  • Students can intercept and erase voice messages or e-mail to the parents.
  • Some parents are unable to talk on the telephone from their workplace.
  • Teachers are in class all day, making repeated phone calls impractical.
  • Teachers are reluctant to talk with parents who react by getting upset.
  • School documents sent home with a student may not reach the parents.
  • Many parents are not in the habit of checking e-mail/voice mail daily.
  • E-mail is subject to downtime and it could be devastated by viruses.
  • Parents may assume that good grades and good behavior are the same.
  • Parents seldom get feedback confirming the success of their efforts.
The erosion of school communication to parents has several consequences. First, getting information late means that parents have only partial ability to act with full effect. Second, receiving no information means parents are left with zero ability for responding to misbehavior or commendable conduct of their adolescent. Third, phone and e-mail tag limits communication because both parties lack time and energy. Poor communication from the school leads some parents to withdraw from their corrective guidance role and expect the school to handle such matters. Just as parents withdraw, so do some teachers. They try to handle developmental problems but, without support, eventually give up. There is no benefit when both sides look the other way. Without a synchronized effort between the home and school, the social, emotional, and mental needs of adolescents remain unmet.

Field-testing New Methods of Teacher-Parent Communication
A field-test to assess the potential of two new systems of communication was conducted by the authors with support from Motorola. These systems allow teachers to document the notable behaviors of students, and notify parents quickly by pager when necessary so they can assume their priority role for correction of student misconduct or reinforce reports of good conduct. This study took place at a public high school which enrolls 1,800 students from culturally diverse backgrounds. The faculty were invited to volunteer for a project in which they would experiment with a personal digital assistant (PDA) to record behaviors of students, send pager messages to parents, and get district in-service credit for training. Pager messages would be sent to a broad range of parents rather than just those with misbehaving students. Funding allowed the selection of fourteen faculty representing many academic subjects and years of teaching experience. An assistant principal and a counselor also served on the faculty team. Palm Pilots were chosen as the PDA for recording notable student behaviors because of low cost, ease of use, immediate access, portability of movement in the classroom, and ability to interface with school computers.

All parents of students from one class of participating faculty were sent a letter describing the project and identifying the teacher of their adolescent who would send messages. They were told that participants would be issued a free Motorola pager and allowed to keep it after the project ended along with six months of free air time. Random selection was applied to the pool of parent volunteers to accord with the limitations for purchasing pagers and airtime. Parents who already owned pagers were permitted to participate because involvement did not require equipment expense. The parents of 108 students participated in the project.

Keeping SCORE with a Personal Digital Assistant
The investigators developed a School Code of Recordable Events, called SCORE. This communication code includes statements describing different types of good and poor student conduct, responses of teachers, achievement levels, and parent/teacher information requests. When teachers observed any among the criteria listed on the SCORE card, they promptly entered the corresponding number onto the hand-held wireless organizer. Later, the information was electronically transferred to their computer.

Communicating to Parents using PASS
A new method of reporting to parents on student behavior was field-tested, called the Parent Alert Signal System (PASS). Many teenagers have pagers because their parents are concerned about safety and want to contact them whenever necessary. Schools share a similar goal. Educators want to reach parents immediately when a student fails to meet the accepted conduct or academic standards and make known demonstration of good behavior as well for reinforcement at home. Whenever a notable behavior was detected that should be recognized, teachers entered the code number corresponding to that particular behavior on the SCORE card. Then, this numeric coded message was sent to a parent's pager via phone in the teacher's classroom. Parents examined their SCORE card to determine the issue to confront their son or daughter about or the exemplary behavior to commend. In turn, the parent contacted the reporting teacher's pager by entering the student identification number to confirm that the message had been received.

Messages were sent to parents by 5pm on the same day as notable events occurred. This encouraged parent-teenager interaction about the issue that evening. While teachers are able to provide lessons according to a schedule they plan, parents usually have to teach as the need arises. Parents can know when some "life lessons" are necessary if teachers report to them on notable events in a convenient and timely manner. This immediacy of feedback to a parent regarding student behavior is a basic component of effective positive/negative reinforcement and punishment.

Monitoring Communication Problems
During the field-test the faculty were obliged to report problems to the investigators. Difficulties experienced by faculty in entering data onto their PDA, transfer of information, criteria for reporting, and sending pager messages were identified and solved. For teachers, entry of inaccurate student identification numbers, parent pager numbers, and SCORE code numbers were the most frequent errors. More faculty practice working in pairs and tutoring for individuals as elements of a structured training program were recommended. From a logistical standpoint, the district instructional technology unit should be included in project planning to ensure that installation of personal digital assistant software accords with the schedule of the program coordinator and teachers.

In a similar way, all participating parents were instructed to contact the investigators when they had difficulties using their pager, interpreting messages or confirming receipt of pages. Failure to quickly confirm receipt of pager messages was the most common error of parents. It is worth noting that some parents sought advice regarding ways to confront their adolescent about particular SCORE messages. Parent access to an educational program focusing on adolescent guidance could be beneficial. Parents and teachers also identified several ways to improve the SCORE criteria.

Participant Evaluation
At the end of the field-test, participants were asked to assess their experiences.
A survey was sent to parents with a stamped self-addressed envelope for return to the university team. To ensure privacy, students were individually sent to the library where they completed their surveys anonymously. The response rate was high for teachers (100%), parents (70%) and students (94%). The following reactions confirm that the PASS/SCORE systems have considerable potential.
  • Faculty (93%) reported that using personal digital assistants offers a simple way to maintain records about notable student behavior.
  • Faculty (93%) concluded that the Parent Alert Signal System (PASS) is a more efficient way of contacting parents than by telephone.
  • Parents (94%) agreed that getting pager messages from the faculty is simple.
  • Parents (87%) determined that coded messages are readily interpreted when referring to their SCORE card.
  • Parents (93%) indicated that timely pager messages help them to know when adolescents need their instruction, advice or discipline.
  • All parents (100%) reported discussing the pager messages with their adolescents.
  • Parents (97%), teachers (93%), and students (82%) agreed that pager messaging can improve home-school partnerships.
  • Parents (98%) and students (83%) were encouraged by pager messages describing good behavior.
  • Teachers (92%), parents (92%), and students (82%) believe that most students will behave better if good conduct gets timely recognition.
  • Parents (95%) identified themselves as the most responsible party to teach adolescents about their behavior; (75%) of the students agreed.
  • Parents (92%), teachers (93%) and students (70%) thought that schools should provide parents with education about adolescence and the challenges of growing up today.
  • Faculty (93%) agreed that teachers with students in common should share SCORE data so misconduct across classes can be detected early and dealt with in a unified way.
Benefits of SCORE and PASS
Some documented benefits of the School Code of Recordable Events (SCORE) are:
  • Uniform coding increases accuracy of recording and reporting of student behavior.
  • Sharing SCORE data between teachers could help monitor and curb student problems.
  • Student progress in social development could become a part of cumulative records.
  • Student deficiencies can detect guidance priorities for the faculty and the parents.
  • Teacher codes enable confidential communication to families using pagers.
Some benefits offered by the Parent Alert Signal System (PASS) are:
  • Quick notification allows parents to assume a priority role in corrective guidance.
  • Parents can confront an adolescent when the type of misconduct is made clear.
  • Parents can correct adolescent behaviors in ways that differ from the school.
  • Reports on good student behavior can receive timely reinforcement at home.
  • Communication improves with less confrontation between teachers and parents.
  • Parents can get timely feedback about effects of their guidance on student behavior.
  • Reducing misbehavior promotes greater attention and more progress in learning.
  • Communication by using pager messaging can save time for teachers and parents.
  • Schools can be safer when teachers and parents are willing to unite their efforts.
  • Pagers are easy to carry, operate and low in cost.
Next Steps for Development
The impression of teachers, parents, and students confirmed that an application of personal digital assistants and pagers can improve school communication. Better methods of keeping in contact are also needed within schools so student difficulties can be dealt with more effectively. Procedures should ensure that faculty representing different departments who teach the same students become aware of how these students behave in other courses. Information sharing could lead to early detection of dysfunctional behavior across courses, increase time for instruction, and produce better faculty strategies for resolving difficulties.

School efforts to improve parent support and interest should be augmented by reforms which improve collaboration among educators. When teachers do not share information, they often respond in contradictory ways. A prevalent practice is to evaluate classroom management based on ability of teachers to respond as loners, often passing on the hard-to-deal-with students to an assistant principal as a last resort. The support system adolescents deserve at school requires that faculty more often unite their efforts. Procedures should be developed for teachers and administrators to share SCORE data, determine the success of united interventions, and track student progress in learning social skills.

Another initiative implicates parent development. Guiding adolescents is difficult because growing up has become more complex, most mothers of teens are employed, and relatives are less available to provide supervision. Lessons adolescents need to learn at home require knowledge and skills that many parents have not acquired. Yet, except for families identified with special needs, parents of high school students can rarely access educational programs that are designed to help them with common difficulties. In response to recommendation by parents (92%), teachers (93%), and students (70%), a self-guided curriculum will be devisesd to address the wide range of SCORE statements reported by pager messages.

Conclusion
School methods of communication should be modernized and collaborative efforts become more common. This task calls for using technology in creative ways to enhance student success. Teacher and parent partnerships depend on each party making their distinct and essential contribution to adolescent development. When student deficiencies are related to an academic subject like mathematics or biology, parents may not have the knowledge necessary for tutoring. Accordingly, schools should assume this responsibility. In a similar way, when student deficiencies are a product of misbehavior, parents should provide the instruction that is needed. More parents must recognize that, even though they have busy schedules, their unique responsibilities for adolescent guidance cannot be transferred to the schools. Parents have to provide children with the vital foundation needed to consistently demonstrate civil behavior and productive work ethic.

Educators and parents should work together to make sure that good behavior is acknowledged and reinforced in both environments instead of paying attention only to misconduct. High school teachers ought to strive for increased collaboration rather than acting as isolated professionals. They can be more helpful to students by sharing SCORE data on identification of individual accomplishments or difficulties and planning united interventions. When parents and teachers fulfill complimentary roles, they can improve student social development and academic achievement.
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