By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 30, 2007
At the beginning of this semester, Laura Iriarte Miguel switched anatomy classes.
No big deal. Students at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg can shift courses around at the start of each term. But when Iriarte Miguel remained on the roll in the wrong class for several days, her parents began receiving notices from Edline -- an online, up-to-the-sec grade-tracking program used in Montgomery County middle and high schools -- about her unexcused absences and zeros on quizzes.
Finally, one night at dinner, in between bites of spaghetti, her parents grilled her about her truancy and her rotten anatomy grades. She hadn't told them she had opted into another class.
"They wanted to know why-why-why-why," Iriarte Miguel says. She set them straight, but the air was still poisoned. The suspicion, she says, "accumulated in the back of their minds during the whole day."
This could be a simple story of parental expectations and teenage lackadaisicalness. But it's also a tale of an innovation at the nexus of a morphing world -- symbolic of the changing nature of childhood, America's abiding faith in education and the unforgiving quality of technology.
* * *
Growing up isn't what it used to be. Time was, parents set boundaries, children tested them. There was always a question of how much parents should know and how much kids should tell them. School was often a black box to parents. Mom and Dad dropped their kids off in the morning and had nearly zero understanding of precisely what went on during the day.
High school in particular has been a time of experimentation, says Ellen deLara, an adolescence specialist at Syracuse University. "People are inventing themselves, trying out different ways of being in the world, trying different faces."
Now along comes Edline to help erase the illusion -- and reality -- that school is separate from the parental world. That separation, deLara says, "is a buffer that's actually critical for healthy adolescent development."
Constant monitoring -- the equivalent of a nanny cam trained on teenagers -- "doesn't allow for confabulation," she adds. Nor does it provide "space for thinking about how to present bad news to parents. Instead, parents can jump to conclusions, and essentially, try and convict their teens, all before hearing from them."
The result is double-edged: Edline -- and other programs like it, such as SchoolFusion and School Center -- provide students, teachers and parents with an online meeting place to discuss day-to-day assignments, tests and grades. But it also enables parents to keep track of a kid's academic progress -- or lack of progress -- in a heretofore unthinkably micromanagerial way. Parents can know everything; children have no wiggle room. Gone is the fudge factor, the white lie. A student makes a D on a quiz, a D shows up on Edline. No matter that a student leads a discussion in class or puts forth a cogent point. Or has the possibility to retake the quiz, make up the poor grade or do extra credit work over the weekend.
This swift knowledge of success or failure can drive a wedge into families.
Exhibit A: More than 20 anti-Edline groups have popped up on Facebook with names such as "Edline Is Hazardous to My Health" and "Edline Is Ruining My Life." These two groups, it turns out, were founded by Montgomery County high school students.
So was the largest of the anti-Edline clubs: "Child abuse increased 78% since the Edline was created." With more than 6,000 members, the online klatch is Iriarte Miguel's co-creation. She says that when she and a guy launched it she was being tongue-in-cheek. But there is a real sting.
"Edline really doesn't give us an opportunity to explain why our grades aren't up to par," Iriarte Miguel says.
An A-minus student planning to go to the University of Virginia in the fall, she hears from scores of kids all over the country who are frustrated by the technology's watchdog qualities. A sampling of comments:
"My mom literally watches my sister like a HAWK on Edline," writes a student from Tampa. "Can't say that she has had many fun weekends since Edline was created."
And another note from Los Angeles: "Whatever happened to trying to improve grades before the report cards were sent out? This is so dumb!"
* * *
With computers, everything is binary -- one/two; either/or. There are few in-betweens. Gone are the rough edges, the gray areas. And there are unintended consequences.
Technologies often solve and cause problems at the same time. Cellphones, advertised as devices for knowing the whereabouts of someone at all times, also allow that someone to call from, and pretend to be, anywhere. Edline enhances communication among parents, teachers and students. And it can also destroy communication.
Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, warns against "overtechnologizing." A grade-tracking system like Edline, Turkle says, "sounds to me terribly intrusive."
The best way for parents and students to communicate is to talk about what is going on at school, she says. "When you just see a grade as a number, it's not necessarily opening the possibility of dialogue. Potentially it's closing down dialogue."
Turkle says Edline reminds her of the panopticon, an 18th-century idea for a specially designed building that would enable jailers to watch prisoners without the prisoners knowing they were being observed. The panopticon has become a metaphor for Big Brother.
The question the culture should be asking about monitoring technologies, Turkle says, is: "Is this just making children feel surveillance in a way that is uncomfortable for everybody?" The Internet, she says, can be used as a "blunt instrument."
In the old, pre-Internet days, parents who attended back-to-school nights and knew the names of their child's teachers were considered involved. Edline, and other monitoring technologies, take involvement to a whole other level.
"Parent involvement is known to be the key factor in positive student behavior and achievement," says Edline Vice President Marge Abrams. "How parents use the information is a parenting decision. Hopefully, if parents use the information to work with their child in a positive caring way, this parental involvement will lead to good achievement. Edline does not change the way a parent parents. If a parent uses the information in a punishing way, the same parent probably punishes at report card time."
Love it or hate it, Edline is expanding.
Abrams says the service was created in the late 1990s and today is being used in every state and in other countries. The privately owned company won't release its earnings or a complete list of its customers; schools pay about $2 per student for Edline. Edline, she says, has "many thousands of clients," including schools in Harford County, Md., and Chesterfield County, Va.
There are 38 middle schools and about 25 high schools -- 75,000 students -- in Montgomery County, according to schools spokeswoman Kate Harrison. All but three of the high schools began using Edline this year.
Next year, all the schools will use the service.
* * *
Many American parents don't think that keeping close tabs on their children's school activities is so dumb. They think it's smart.
Countless American success stories revolve around a caring teacher, a challenging class, a top-drawer education. A whole subset of the entertainment industry is built around the glorification of pedagogy. Think "Dangerous Minds" and "Finding Forrester."
In this country, "the middle class -- and anyone wishing to become middle class -- believe that education is the escalator to higher social status and financial well-being," says Larry Cuban, a former district superintendent of Arlington Public Schools and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University.
"The early-20th-century progressives saw schooling as the engine of democracy and the instrument by which immigrants would become Americans and middle class," he says. "Both business and civic elites have sold public schooling, getting a diploma, and now going to college as ways of entering the labor market and succeeding."
The same people, Cuban says, "particularly at the beginning of the 20th century and in the past three decades, have linked better schooling and getting credentials to better jobs, a strong economy and higher lifetime earnings."
With so much riding on success in school, watchdog technology such as Edline and its immediate techno-feedback have an obvious appeal. For hovering "helicopter" parents, it's a high-beam searchlight. No bad grade escapes its harsh glare.
Chris Barclay is a member of the Montgomery County Board of Education whose daughter goes to Einstein High School in Kensington. Although the students at Einstein call it "Dreadline," he says that the grade-tracking service "helps hold your child and your child's teacher accountable." The software allows working parents to stay connected.
Laura Hajdukiewicz, a biology teacher at Andover High School in Massachusetts, loves the software. She liked it so much at her old place of employment, the Bromfield School outside of Boston, that she persuaded Andover to try it. She tells of parents who found out through Edline that their son was reading the novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," giving them something to talk about at dinnertime. She says a parent who is a cardiologist volunteered to come into her class and speak when he learned through Edline that the class was studying the heart. "It's opening lines of communication," Hajdukiewicz says. "Students like it when they are doing well."
Hajdukiewicz asked more than 100 students in several grades for their opinion of Edline. She says the response was overwhelmingly favorable, although they felt their parents were now micromanaging their grades. "They like it for their own use but would rather keep things 'quiet' which is a fairly typical teenage response," she writes in an e-mail. "They also feel that their parents check it more often than they do!"
Carol Blum, Montgomery's director of high school instruction and achievement, says that Edline has helped to cut down on the number of e-mails and phone calls that parents make to teachers.
In the past, she says, "it wasn't as easy to be in touch with parents." A teacher would send out an interim report if the student was in danger of failing and by the time the parent received it, "it was almost too late," she says. "This way if a student is in trouble in a course, a parent can see it in a timely manner."
And students can know where they stand. "The biggest pro, coming from the high school perspective," says Christopher S. Garran, principal of Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, "is that Edline gives the students more information about their grades and where they stand in class."
A student can go online, Garran says, "and quickly see the impact that a zero might have. He can more easily see the effect of not having worked very hard." At the same time, "when they get an A, it immediately shows them how powerful that is."
Garran tells parents: "How closely you monitor your child's progress is a personal decision.
"Parents have to remember what it was like when they were in school . . . remember when you didn't get that homework assignment in on time."
A lot can happen, he says, "between that first quiz and the final grade."