The New York Times
November 24, 2000, Friday, Late Edition – Final
Report Cards Are Due, Only This Time for Parents


SECTION: Section A; Page 37; Column 1; National Desk

LENGTH: 1373 words


Earlier this month, Olivia Carillo walked to her daughters’ school for the autumn ritual known as report card pickup night, when Chicago parents meet teachers and discuss their children’s first round of grades. But this time, Mrs. Carillo, a 41-year-old mother of three, came away with a sobering surprise: Not only her girls, but also she and her husband would be marked by their teachers.Upon seeing the Chicago public school system’s new Parental Involvement Report Card, Mrs. Carillo said, “I was a little bit scared.” Some days got so busy she barely remembered to ask her children about homework, much less check it. Occasionally, they showed up late for school. The Carillos always pushed their daughters to work hard. Now, they wondered, what would their own report cards say?

With calls by parents for tighter accountability placing schools across the country under intense scrutiny and pressure to improve student achievement, some school systems are pushing back. Citing decades of research linking student performance to parental involvement in their education, schools are using a variety of means to draw parents in and to hold them responsible as well. Perhaps the most forceful, if controversial, approach is under way in Chicago, where some 30 schools are handing out parental report cards. An additional 210 public schools in the city are giving out checklists similar to the report cards, but without letter grades. Along with the checklists, teachers are giving parents note pads listing daily tasks. The parents are to complete the list and send it with their children each day.Not everyone is happy about all this. Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a Chicago group that trains parents to run for seats on local school councils and is active in educational reform, said parents who contacted her organization were outraged and “deeply insulted” by the plan to rate them.”This is a one-way communication,” Ms. Woestehoff said.Others, including Mrs. Carillo, have warmed to the idea. This month, parents grade themselves on basics like reviewing homework, reading with their children, getting them to school on time and making sure they had the right supplies. The rest of the year, the teachers hand out the marks.”It gave me a chance to check myself and analyze my priorities,” Mrs. Carillo said. “I felt it was important that I could be graded like my children.”Teachers will grade parents in 14 areas, from the self-evident, like whether notes explain any absences, to the less obvious, like whether parents ask children about their day at school. The grades are partly based on the daily checklists parents send in. Teachers said children seemed to enjoy monitoring their parents for a change and tended to speak up if their parents had not truthfully filled out the checklists.Parents with poor track records can expect a home visit every 10 weeks from representatives the school system has trained to drop in.The idea of rating parents originated with Paul G. Vallas, the superintendent of the Chicago public schools. Last spring, Mr. Vallas suggested that some parents were not pulling their weight and ought to be evaluated just like their children. Criticism of his proposal as condescending toward parents led the superintendent to substitute checklists for the report cards and to make their use voluntary for principals.But Juan R. Rangel, director of the United Neighborhood Organization, a Hispanic nonprofit group active in 30 schools, seized upon the notion of rating parents and distributed report cards printed up with letter grades to the schools. Mr. Rangel noted that parent involvement had traditionally meant backing the school administration by volunteering as hall monitor or joining the PTA.”What we’re talking about is something much more simple, but much more concrete,” he said. “We’re trying to change the culture of what happens in the home.” Some educators, parents and teachers, while agreeing that the attitudes and actions of parents can prove crucial to a child’s academic progress, fear that grading parents could poison the rapport between parents and teachers, particularly where such relations may start out strained. Delia Medina, 41, found herself at loggerheads with her son’s second-grade teacher after the boy failed to hand in homework. Though she signed off on the homework, Mrs. Medina said, her son later said he had been afraid to hand it in for fear it was wrong.”I like to be told if I’m doing anything wrong,” Mrs. Medina said, “but on the other hand, you can’t tell the teacher they’re not doing a good job. You wouldn’t say what you feel, because then you’ll have your son in the room with that teacher.” Joyce L. Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said parents were generally eager to help their children do well in school but might not understand how.”If it’s not a partnership approach, it comes to look dictatorial,” Ms. Epstein said. At least two dozen public schools here run training classes to help parents who may not have had much academic support themselves, but others offer nothing, noted John Simmons, president of Participation Associates, a consulting firm. A number of principals bar parents from dropping in unannounced, so there is no foundation of familiarity to build upon, Mr. Simmons added. Educators caution that teachers, too, must weigh the obstacles parents face before taking up the pen.”Let’s say you see your kid once a week for the last four years because that’s the shift you have to work,” said one assistant principal, speaking on condition of anonymity. “How do you grade that parent?” While some teachers have embraced the report cards, frequently after overcoming misgivings, others remain deeply uncomfortable and opposed to judging parents.”It’s already a job to teach the children,” said Dewain Thames, the curriculum coordinator at Burbank Elementary School, who has been in the Chicago public schools for 27 years. “But it’s another job to teach the parents what they didn’t do. I was not trained to deal with these people on a psychological level.” The report cards are making their debut in Hispanic neighborhoods, where the prevailing culture reveres the authority of teachers and where Mr. Rangel’s organization has smoothed the way. That may make it difficult to generalize about the reception the evaluations would find in less traditional communities. Hiram Broyls, principal of Burbank Elementary, called the report cards a fine idea, although he acknowledged that in some school districts, criticizing parents could amount to “political suicide.” “Some people, they don’t care what you think about them,” Dr. Broyls said. “But most parents will want to get good grades, to set a good example.” So far, no parents have been failed by anybody except perhaps themselves. Andrew Rachal, a divorced 37-year-old father of three, said he would have given himself an F had he been asked. Mr. Rachal, a messenger, had two of his sons with him as he made deliveries one recent afternoon. The boys overslept and missed school. He thought a report card might force his estranged wife, who has custody of the boys, to be more conscientious.At Rachel Carson Elementary School, on Chicago’s South Side, the report cards are “opening a dialogue” with parents, said the principal, Kathleen Mayer.”Our parents are getting good report cards,” said Dr. Mayer, whose eight years at Carson have brought a steady rise in math and reading scores. “It makes it easier when you have good news, not bad.” But she added that it was also important for administrators like her to grasp the opportunities report cards open. Through them, Sonia Soler, who teaches third grade at Carson, learned that one child lacked medical coverage. The school helped the mother apply for government-financed health insurance for poor children. Taking her cue, Dr. Mayer sent notices to all her teachers, along with applications for coverage. “We’re not here to say, ‘You did this wrong,’ ” Dr. Mayer said. “Our motto is, Whatever it takes.”








LOAD-DATE: November 24, 2000


GRAPHIC: Photos: Olivia Carillo, center, a mother of three, reviewed her report card with Kathleen Carey, right, a teacher at Rachel Carson Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side. Mrs. Carillo’s daughter Abigail is at left.; Delia Medina has two children in a Chicago elementary school. (Photographs by Todd Buchanen for The New York Times)
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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