Parent report cards are novel way to boost support

By Lucas L. Johnson Ii

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, May 10 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this April 17, 2012 photo, Roger Witherspoon helps his daughter, Gabrielle, 9, with her homework in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee is one of only a few states that has passed laws creating evaluations or contracts that put helping with homework or attending teacher conferences into writing.

Mark Humphrey, Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Educators exasperated by the need for greater parent involvement have persuaded Tennessee lawmakers to sign off on a novel bit of arm-twisting: Asking parents to grade themselves on report cards.

Another Tennessee measure signed into law recently will create parent contracts that give them step-by-step guidelines for pitching in. The report card bill — which would initially apply to two struggling schools — passed the Legislature, and the governor has said he is likely to sign it. Participation in the programs is voluntary.

Only a few states have passed laws creating evaluations or contracts that put helping with homework or attending teacher conferences into writing. Tennessee is the only one so far to do report cards, though Utah has parents fill out an online survey and Louisiana is also considering parent report cards.

The measures are meant to address a complaint long voiced by teachers and principals: Schools can't do it alone.

"It's a proven fact that family engagement equals students' success," said James Martinez, spokesman for the National Parent Teacher Association.

"It's one of the key ingredients to education reform, to turning around schools, to improving our country's children's knowledge base compared to the rest of the world."

Under Tennessee's contract legislation, parents in each school district are asked to sign a document agreeing to review homework and attend school functions or teacher conferences, among other things. Since it's voluntary, there's no penalty for failing to uphold the contract — but advocates say simply providing a roadmap for involvement is an important step.

Michigan is the only state that has enacted a similar measure, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In the case of Tennessee's report card proposal, a four-year pilot program will be set up involving two of Tennessee's struggling schools. Parents of students in kindergarten through third grade will be given a blank report card at the same time as the students, and the parents will do a self-evaluation of their involvement in activities similar to those in the parental contract. Parents will give themselves a grade of excellent, satisfactory, needs improvement or unsatisfactory

Tennessee Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat and the House sponsor of the measures, said the program may be expanded depending on how many parents participate.

"What we're hoping will happen with the parents grading themselves is that they will, at a minimum, become aware of either the good job that they're doing in regards to children's education, or possibly become aware of some areas where they may be able to make some improvements," said Parkinson, adding that educators can review the report cards with the parents if they choose.

Utah recently passed legislation that creates an online survey where parents can evaluate their involvement, but the school does not assign them a grade and it's voluntary. Louisiana is currently considering legislation to grade parent participation, according to the NCSL.

While cajoling parents through state laws is a new trend, the underlying idea is one that few would deny. A 2002 study by the National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory found that no matter the income or structure of the family, when parents are involved students have higher grades, stay in school longer and are more likely to go to college.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said he's likely to sign the report card legislation, but like the other proposal he wants to see how it's implemented.

"The spirit behind it is 100 percent right," said the Republican governor. "The question is, if folks could mandate parental involvement, other people would be doing it before."

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