Homework-tracking Web sites won't work without teacher input

By Jay Mathews
Monday, December 21, 2009

My former Post colleague Tracy Thompson has two daughters in a Washington area school district. I promised not to say which one. It doesn't matter, because the issue she raises involves all high-tech schools, of which we have many.

People aren't using the new Web features designed to help families. Is it because parents like me are technophobes? Not entirely. The reluctant participants who concern Thompson are teachers.

Both of Thompson's kids have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. They have trouble getting their work done. Her school district, like several in the area, has Web sites on which parents can see their children's assignments. That way, they cannot be fooled by sly evasions when they ask their children, sitting in front of the TV, whether they have any homework.

Thompson was delighted to discover the Web homework schedules when her older daughter was a sixth-grader. Disappointment followed, she said, when "I found out only about half of her teachers used it. Some teachers were weeks behind in updating the info. My older daughter is off to high school next year and has matured amazingly over the past three years, so I don't have to worry that much about her stuff anymore. But now my younger daughter is in third grade, and I am in my second year of trying to get her teachers to use the Web."

The year started well. The third-grade teacher, like many of her colleagues, posted and regularly updated the information. But after three weeks, she was transferred, and her replacement didn't create her own site. Tracy volunteered to do it for her. The teacher was appreciative but had trouble keeping it current.

Thompson's daughter said during Thanksgiving break she had no homework. Her mother was suspicious. The teacher couldn't be reached over the break, but when there was still no reply two days after school started, Thompson contacted the principal.

The teacher was discontinuing the Web site, the principal said. She thought it was not a useful tool and a bother when she had different assignments for gifted and regular kids. So how could parents keep track of assignments if the teacher rejected the instrument to do that?

Last year's teacher, Thompson said, kept her Web site up to date only after Thompson complained to the principal twice. She has a signed agreement from the district to provide an online homework schedule, under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. But some administrators ignore that and say Web sites aren't a priority because students need to learn responsibility.

"ADHD kids learn responsibility, but on their own timetable, which does not track with everybody else's," Thompson said. One administrator suggested that they give the child a zero for the missed assignment. Thompson said that might, in theory, impress the student two months later when she got her report card, but for now "it means nada." The best immediate consequence, she said, would be doing the homework, but a parent can't make that happen if the assignment is a mystery.

I am sure some teachers see this as one more chore in an already long day. But wouldn't it save time spent fielding parents' calls or dealing with their children's incomplete work? Officials at other school districts told me they get few complaints such as this, but they make sure principals take them seriously.

When that doesn't work, what should parents do? The wonders of computer-based 21st-century education fade quickly if the information doesn't get online.

More at washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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