Shortening the Teacher-Parent Feedback Loop

Other than what shows up every night in the bookbag, the “feedback loop” that we’re all used to as parents of kids in elementary school mostly happens at the two parent-teacher interviews that happen each school year. We might see the teacher in between these interviews, especially if there’s something of particular concern, but for a lot of parents information about how things are going in school is packed into those often-all-too-short meetings.

At least that’s the way it used to be.

Here’s what happens these days: Oliver and I will be walking to school in the morning and he’ll mention something to me — “I lost my gymnastics sheet!” or “What’s the difference between a homophone and a homonym anyway?” If it’s something I know is going to affect his school day, or that’s going to confuse his teacher when he mentions it in class, I’ll send off an email when I get to my office 10 minutes later, and I’ll often get a reply back later in the day.

This is a feedback loop that happens 2 or 3 times a week, not 2 or 3 times a year, and I know, from talking to Oliver’s teacher this year and from our own experiences, that it’s been a big help in maximizing opportunities for learning and minimizing potentially stressful issues.

We’re lucky, of course: Oliver’s classroom teacher is open to this communication, has the tech-savviness to figure out how to handle her email efficiently, and we have the sense as parents to know where the line between “effective communication” and “teacher harrassment” lies. 

I know from talking to other parents and teachers that our experiences are by no means universal: there are teachers in the system who simply don’t know how to use email, or at don’t care to. The Groupwise email system provided to teachers by the Department of Education is generally acknowledged to be too slow to be practically useful (smart teachers route around it). There are parents whose sense of the help-harrass line is different than ours. And many families without computers or the Internet at home.

But the upsides, if we can figure out the technology, access and etiquette parts of the equation, are tremendous: parents are more engaged, teachers have a “rapid response” way of working on issues with parents, and because home and school are each more aware of what’s happening in the other, the opportunity for the curriculum to spill over into the home, and for home to spill over into the curriculum is much enhanced.

The problem is that the “technology, access and etiquette parts of the equation” aren’t something that anyone’s paying particular attention to. The capital budget for education technology for 2012-13 has been reduced to $0. Absolutely nobody is talking about how to solve the “digital divide” issue and get technology into every home. And teachers and parents are left to ourselves to work out the etiquette (which, truth be told, we might be able to do, with a few loose guidelines in place).

Technology in education is a difficult issue overwrought with funding, policy and infrastructure issues. At the very least, though, focusing on the simple ability to get email back and forth between home and school seems like a good place to focus some attention.