The successful education of a young mind often depends on the combined efforts of teachers and parents. Schools need to keep parents or guardians abreast of any progress or problems, as a meaningful relationship between these educational partners can have a significant effect on outcomes. One of the ways schools try to do this is by issuing report cards.
Reports issued to parents should include more information than just grades. An over-emphasis on ‘scoring’ a student can lead to false parameters for achievement, and fail to take into account specific areas for improvement that might help towards future success. Reports of this nature are also impersonal; they don’t address the student as an individual, with individual skills and needs. If schools are to enlist the practical help of parents, they need to clearly show that each child is special, and deserving of particular attention.
For these reasons, report cards should include five separate sets of comments: what the student has achieved so far; his or her behaviour and attitude during classes; suggested areas for development; assistance and strategies that the school can offer; and how parents can also help their child’s learning. Although this level of detail might seem to be putting additional strain on already overburdened teachers, the end result can make it all worthwhile.
Reporting on achievement
Unfortunately, the system demands that grades are important – to schools as well as students – so each semester’s results need to be recorded. These, of course, are pointless if there is no indication of what they mean in real terms. For instance, is a B grade enough to place their child in the top one third of the class, and how does this compare with achievements state-wide? Parents need to know how the grade relates to an expected level of achievement for their child, and to understand how their child has been assessed. The report should therefore include a brief outline of school and state standards which is embedded on the document.
There should also be specific mention of an assignment or test on which the student demonstrated ability. If the overall result was not impressive, teachers should try to focus on what aspects of it were done well. Parents need to know that their child isn’t a no-hoper, and students need confirmation that their achievements, no matter how small, have been noticed. Sometimes a carrot is more effective than a stick.
Finally, any level of achievement needs to be assessed against what has gone before. A brief comment should recognise the student’s progress as being above, at, or below average for the group. It is important that this information is specific to the class and teacher, as it may indicate possible difficulties with the content or with the types of lesson being offered, or even suggest that other, more personal issues are getting in the way of learning. These are all matters which need to be addressed if real development is to occur.
Behaviour and attitude
Graded achievement is really only part of the story. A student’s behaviour needs to be documented in order to recognize the relationships they have with the teacher and with peers. It is incumbent on every student to not only do their best, but to allow others to do their best too. As with the assessment reporting, information to parents needs to be balanced. A disruptive child can still be a useful contributor to discussions, or show leadership in small groups.
Reporting on attitude is a judgement call, though it should be based on private conversations with the student, as well as on observations of behaviour. It is important that parents understand how their child feels about a particular subject and about school in general. Reflective comments from a teacher can sometimes lead to meaningful discussions between parents and students.
Comments should never be too negative. If the problem is a serious one, it should have been broached with parents long before reports were due, and the comments should try to reflect any changes that might have occurred since then.
Areas for improvement
So far, the report has been all about looking backwards. The remainder of it should point the way forwards, with advice about how the student can maximise his or her potential. Teachers might offer suggestions for specific areas of development, while recognizing whether the advice is addressing a small or major problem. The focus should be on upcoming tasks. If the teacher believes that the student may have difficulties with some of the work – say, essay writing or research – this should be noted.
This is pro-active reporting. Rather than serving to alarm parents and students, it should give advance notice of skills and knowledge that need improving in order to manage the next steps. Parents also need to know that help will be available, and that their child should not be afraid or embarrassed to seek assistance.
It should be recognized that every child has areas for improvement. Even talented or gifted students can move forward, and teachers may want to suggest ways in which these young people can better prepare for the challenges of higher education. Alternatively, suggestions may be offered that allow these potential overachievers to take more control of their own learning and help them to design study regimes that might be more satisfying.
What the school can do to help
In this section, explicit strategies need to be outlined for each student. Recommendations might include: study group options; additional homework; skill specific tasks; or more contact with parents. By doing this, the school and teachers are demonstrating a genuine concern that no child will be left behind, at least if they can help it. Offering support of this nature also puts the ball squarely in the student’s court. Fear of failure is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is crucial that each student believes that he or she can achieve success, and that there are programmes in place that will allow this to happen.
What parents can do to support their child’s learning
There is only so much a school can do, given the limited class time devoted to each area of learning. Parents must also play their part, whether actively or passively, and this section recognises the importance of that role. It is also a reminder to students that their responsibility as learners doesn’t end when the school bell rings.
Actively, parents can ensure that their child is eating and sleeping well, and that there are books in the house for research or recreation. They can set homework timetables, and schedule access to online entertainment or television. They can be encouraged to make greater contact with the school concerning their child’s progress, and this might include signing off on homework sheets.
Passively, the role of the parents is simply to be supportive and understanding of their child’s needs. There should be a quiet time set aside for the whole family, so that the student can work undisturbed. If the student is experiencing difficulties or success, parents should be prepared to listen, and share those feelings too.
Above all, the inclusion of a ‘help from parents’ section empowers them. It may inspire parents to ask more questions about their child’s schooling, and to help them recognise that all involved in education face considerable challenges. Although it is frequently expected of them, schools can’t do it alone. There is great wisdom in the African proverb, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.”
By this point, many teachers may be throwing up their hands in horror, thinking that this type of report is far too unwieldy and time-consuming to manage. However, word processors and spread sheets have made the process relatively quick and easy. Many of the remarks can be drawn from drop down comment banks, which the teacher simply has to tie together and personalise. Also, the twin processes of compiling the comments and writing the reports can be an essential part of a school’s review and development, in which it may become clear that half yearly reports do not only provide an assessment of students. In bridging the gap between parents and schools, a little extra effort can make a big difference.