Federal Opinion

Obama-Biden on the New Report Cards

By skoolboy — September 10, 2008 3 min read
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skoolboy doesn’t fancy himself a particularly political creature, although some readers would likely argue that I’m kidding myself, in that blogging is an inherently political activity. In any event, I haven’t chosen to do a close analysis of the positions or proposed policies of the finalists in our Presidential derby. I’ll make a brief exception today, not to make political hay, but rather to try to illuminate an enduring sociological challenge.

Yesterday, Barack Obama issued a new plan for school reform, emphasizing choice and innovation, investments in technology, enhanced college readiness, incentives for improved classroom teaching, and heightened responsibility from parents and from the federal government. The last piece of this agenda calls for the creation of quarterly parent report cards to support individual learning plans. Press reports of this component of the Obama agenda conveyed the impression that such report cards would simply be a fancy repackaging of the periodic report cards that parents already receive itemizing how their children are doing in school. But the Obama plan has something more ambitious in mind, including “the concrete information [that parents] need to help improve their child’s performance each year and plan for post-high school education”:

  • Where their child is expected to perform at their grade level to be ready for high school graduation and post-high school education

  • Information about local afterschool, summer learning, tutoring, and/or mentoring programs that might provide additional assistance to students who have fallen behind and provide additional hands-on learning opportunities for students who excel in certain subject areas

  • Information about alternative public schooling options in the area that the student may be able to attend, and how those schools’ students are performing

  • Expected amount of savings a family should have for future college tuition and information about eligibility for federal and state tax credits, grants, and other financial assistance

Is more information inherently better than less information? No, skoolboy thinks, not if more information is overwhelming. This is a remarkably diverse set of objectives, and each of them would require at least a term paper’s worth of material to convey what’ s important. Providing parents with the information necessary to enable them to choose between their child’s current school and alternatives? What’s the right metric here? Value-added models of school effects? I’ve seen highly-educated professionals struggle to understand them. Concrete information on how a child is expected to perform at the child’s grade level? You can find this on most state department of education websites, but it’s not something that can be summarized in a page or two.

The more serious problem, though, is the assumption that providing information in and of itself creates a logic for action. The available evidence calls into question both the inclination and the ability of parents to use information to make decisions regarding their children’s schooling. Moreover, these orientations and predispositions are linked to social class. skoolboy’s long-time colleague Annette Lareau, noted here as a cool person you should know, has written extensively about the differing childrearing and schooling practices of middle-class and working-class parents. Her analyses show that middle-class parents are predisposed to see family and school as connected, and to be proactive in seeking out and evaluating educational opportunities for their children. Working-class parents care just as much about their children’s education, but they see family and school as separate, and are less likely to intervene in what they view as the responsibility of the school.

Provision of this information, therefore, could have the unintended consequence of exacerbating social class differences in schooling. Middle-class parents may be better able to make sense of the information, and will be more prepared to act on it. Working-class parents may be overwhelmed by it, and will not necessarily know how to translate the information into concrete action steps. It wouldn’t be the first policy initiative to founder by assuming that everyone behaves like the middle class.

And finally: “quarterly”? Maybe that’s just rushed copyediting…

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