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Case Narrative

In a small rural state, an act is signed into law. The Act ensures overall educational quality in the state's schools through adoption of rigorous statewide and local academic standards, state and local assessments, individual school action plans based on assessment results, and mandatory reporting of educational results to communities. School action plans must be developed by committees with parent and/or community member representatives. These committee members will need to know how to interpret and act on school performance data, as well as how to communicate the information to the community at large.

The Principal
Dick Leonard, a Principal of 24 years, was returning to his office at Peterson Elementary School after a long day of meetings at the district office. He rolled down the window and started to recap the important points of the day's events. Although controversial, he didn't think the law was all that bad. He knew that state test results would be coming back, and with that data, staff, parents, and community would all need to come together to form action plans for approval by the school board. He knew that on the systemic level, this meant making decisions about what programs to keep and which to let go in order to increase student success. Parents would need to be involved in the decision-making process. They would need to understand the standards and what it looked like for a child to successfully meet those standards.

“When parents come to school we have to get them on the same page as us. This starts with the relationships between teachers and parents. Parents don't come to conferences to talk about social stuff. They want to know what their kids can and can't do. I am very clear with my teachers on how they should run their parent-teacher conferences. I don't say the specifics, but I remind them that we're dealing with the state standards and frameworks and that we need to articulate this to our parents. We need to educate them because it's different than when they came to school. We need to talk about new assessments. We need to talk about math, reading, and writing performance. They need to understand why we're choosing certain books for reading.”

Dick believed from experience and research that what parents and families want most from schools is a good experience for their kids. Parents want schools first and foremost that are safe and treat kids with care, understanding, and fairness. There was no question in his mind that different parents wanted different things, but he knew they all want to see their kids succeed.

“Parents need to understand what success is. They need to talk to their kids about the importance of school and listening to their teachers. On the flip side, teachers need to be able to articulate to parents what their kids should be able to do. You can't have high standards and low expectations for kids and families at the same time.

Dick had initiated a number of new school-wide policies based on these beliefs. He had eliminated the practice of giving letter grades. At the meeting that morning he was quite vocal in explaining his rationale to his colleagues.

“The kid might get an ‘A’ and the parents think they know what their kid learned. Well they don't know. They only know he got an ‘A.’ We need to show where a kid is in relation to the standards. We have to explain if a kid is meeting the standards, exceeding them, or below them. That's why standards were developed in the first place. You can tie your ‘A’ to standards. Standards are a tool that let teachers and parents monitor the rigor of the work children are expected to do. Unfortunately, standards might be public documents, but they're not accessible and understandable. I think that we in education need to take more responsibility in explaining to parents what standards mean. This will get directly at the issue of parents not having trust in the system.”

Dick had talked about building trust back into the system. Over the years he believed that deteriorating confidence was one of the main problems that existed between the public and public institutions. If teachers and schools could communicate progress and standards with families better, then that would be the first step in building more confidence in the system.

Dick thought of his own situation as a father. He had stopped going to parent-teacher conferences for his daughter when she was a sophomore in high school. During one back-to-school night, he asked his daughter's math teacher to talk about the standards in her classroom. Dick was shocked that the teacher could not clearly express what she expected from his daughter and the others. Nor could she show him some of his daughter's work when he requested it. He felt his time had been wasted. He drove into the parking lot, renewing in his vows to make things different at his school.

The Parents
Molly Burnham and her friend Margot, both parents at Peterson Elementary, stood in the parking lot waiting to pick up their children. Molly was upset because her son, Nathan, who was in first grade had been recommended for summer school. She knew that he was reading on grade level, so was surprised to hear the recommendation two weeks ago at parent-teacher conferences. She and her husband decided not to send their son to the summer classes. As a 30-year-old mother of two, Molly worked only part time so that she could spend more time at home with her children. Much of this time was spent on making Nathan a strong reader. She confided her concerns to her friend Margot.

“Reading is one of the areas where it took him a long time to pick it up, because he resists when he has trouble learning. But we're really working on helping him understand that just because things are a little difficult doesn't mean it can't be done. I keep telling him it's like playing Nintendo—not that I like him to sit there hour after hour, but there are things that are hard, and then he'll get help and he'll do it. So eventually this year he really did pick up his reading. He can read fluently and understand what he's reading. He's now on grade level exactly. And that was important to me.”

Molly had advocated for her son to be in the special enrichment school-day reading program, but other kids were ahead of him so he couldn't enroll. Because of this she worked on reading with him a lot at home.

“We read all the time. Even if it's the back of a cereal box. We read signs, we look at the board at the bus station, and if he recognizes that something looks colorful and interesting, he'll read that. We read a story every night. It's mostly the same books all the time, but he likes the repetition and knowing words immediately.

“His teacher told me he was doing well, that he was on grade level. But now she's recommending him for summer school. I really don't think it was fair. Why is she concerned about summer slippage when we spend so much time reading with Nathan at home? We have nearly twenty library books taken out! Besides, I kept trying to get him help during the year, but there were other special needs kids ahead of him. And he's not even special needs. And now they want him to miss his summer, and he's only in the first grade. Why would she suggest summer school out of nowhere?”

The other mother responded. “This school just has a lot of trouble letting us know how our kids are doing. My oldest son is in fourth grade, and his report cards have been getting stupider and stupider over the years. By fourth grade you really need to have some kind of letter grade. Let me know where he stands! I just can't figure it out. Last quarter I got this report that says ‘he's meeting the standard’ or ‘he's not meeting the standard’ or ‘he's exceeding the standard.’ These report cards don't even tell you if your kid is really doing okay. I mean they moved my son up a level, which is great. But we're also a little worried about that because I don't know if he's doing ‘A’ work, ‘B’ work, or ‘C’ work. You don't have any control over how they do the report cards anymore.”

Molly thought more about it. She didn't mind having standards or benchmarks to show progress. Because of her loose work schedule she was in the school a lot and felt she had a good handle on what was going on. She understood the different strategies the teachers used in reading and how she could help Nathan beyond asking him to “sound things out.” But she also felt the curriculum was a bit overwhelming and that the new standards made it hard to read letters and notes sent home by the school. She was worried sometimes that even though she was actively involved, she was not getting the total picture and not getting a lot out of the communications with the school.

Molly looked at Margot and said, “I think the school needs to send home information just to let you know in between how your kids are doing. I know that when the kids leave school, teachers are allowed to have their time. But if they could have progress reports or open houses or a potluck dinner—they don't do those things anymore.”

Margot agreed, “Teachers just present a portfolio and tell a parent that their child is doing fine. Teachers need to show what ‘fine’ means. Teachers need to be able to give a parent a four-point rubric and explain where their child is and where they want that child to go. It needs to be concrete. You know, we come into school and they go over the kids' progress, their report card, and their strengths and weaknesses. Yes, you meet the teacher. You get the report card. Then she has folders with some work in them, but what does it all mean? What do I have to compare it to?”

At this point Nathan came bounding out of school and gave his mom a big hug. “Let's go play in the park,” he yelled.

The Teacher
Tammy Gray, Nathan's teacher, began to clean up her room after dismissal. Teaching at Peterson Elementary for over 10 years, Tammy was a respected educator and friend to many in the building. As she straightened out the reading record folders, she smiled as she ran across Nathan's. He was the success of her year. He came into the year with a lot of difficulty reading and was very behind with his sounds and his retention of words. She worked one-on-one with him for most of the year.

“Without the one-on-one, I'm not sure what would have happened. He might have picked it up, but because he was so much lower than the others, it's hard to say. But now I expect him to continue reading at the average level next year. He's doing well with his research on zebras and he's just so excited about anything he reads and writes. His mom's in school a lot and if she's walking by he'll bring her something that he's written and show it to her.”

But Tammy was also concerned.

“I just don't want him to lose what he's learned—we've worked so hard this year and he's come along so well. I don't want him to hit the ‘summer slide’ so to say. Molly acted surprised by this. Hasn't she been tracking his progress through the year? I don't even think she realizes how low he was coming in.”

Tammy began to walk down the hall to the main office. She thought about all the times parents were surprised at the end of the year when their children's promotion to the next grade was questioned. But Tammy felt she did her best.

“I send home numerous report cards and progress reports throughout the year. I even have my own progress reports that I send out at least two times during the report periods so that the door is open if parents want to discuss any problems. We hold report cards until the parent-teacher conferences to make sure that they arrive home and so that we can talk to the parents about them. In my class I explain what the different standards are, the way the report cards are marked, and what it means. I tell them how their child's doing in the different areas and let them know the concerns I might have. And then I ask the parent if they have questions for me, and quite often they don't. I don't know if that's because I've explained it so clearly or they just have no idea what to ask!”

Tammy always felt her discussions with parents were positive experiences. She believed educators need to go into conferences with an attitude of “What can we do to make this situation better for your child?” or “These are all the wonderful things your child can do.” She walked into the office to check her mailbox. Inside, a flyer invited her and other teachers to take part in the school design team created as a result of the new law. She wondered under her breath, “What a waste of time! I recognize many of the parents in this school have a lot of strengths and a lot to contribute. But if parents don't even understand about their own kids' progress, how are they ever going to be able to participate in these school-wide teams?”

The people and events in this case are based on real life accounts, but have been disguised to protect confidentiality. We would like to thank ethnographer Kim Friedman for conducting the in-depth interviews from which this teaching case was developed and her early analytical insights. This work was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of its Research Network on Successful Pathways Through Middle Childhood.



Discussion Questions

  • What do administrators, teachers, and parents want from a student reporting system?
  • How are administrators', teachers', and parents' interests and needs served by the new ideas and practices?
  • Will school personnel and parents be able to work together?
  • What are the organizational and administrative issues in this case?
  • What are some school and home barriers to parental understanding of children's academic progress?
  • What are the consequences of poorly communicated progress? What are the benefits of well understood progress?
  • What are some effective ways to communicate children's academic progress to parents?



Instructor Notes

To request instructor notes for this teaching case, send an email to FINE at



Defining “Fine”—Communicating Academic Progress to Parents Commentary by Deborah Stipek


Deborah Stipek is the I. James Quillen Endowed Dean of the Stanford University School of Education. Read an article about her work in the Stanford Report. She is co-author of the book, "Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning".

The new standards and emphasis on accountability for schools creates considerable challenges in home-school communication. As the principal notes after his visit to his daughter's school, even the teacher didn't seem to understand the math standards. If teachers can't articulate them, it is no wonder that parents are confused. The political climate and the frequent changes in the standards seen in some states and communities makes communication all the more difficult.

Despite the principal's apparent commitment to communicating with parents, there are many examples of misunderstandings in this case study. The principal eliminated grades, but the parents interviewed obviously did not understand what the new information on students' report cards meant. Nathan's mother worked with him on reading, disappointed that he had not been accepted into a special program, but apparently not aware that the teacher was also working with him one-on-one. The teacher felt she was informing parents by sending “numerous report cards and progress reports throughout the year,” but according to Nathan's mother, these written communications didn't make sense. The communication glitches seen in this case are common.

I will take a few examples from this case to illustrate strategies that can be used to improve communication of standards and individual student progress. Grades, as the principal concluded, do not provide useful information. They do not tell parents what their child knows, what her strengths are, or where she is falling behind.

Grades are particularly problematic as a strategy to provide information about individual student performance because the standards and criteria vary substantially from school to school and even from classroom to classroom. For example, one national study found that seventh-graders in low-poverty schools who received an ‘A’ in math achieved at the 87th percentile on average on the math achievement test; students who received an ‘A’ in math in high-poverty schools achieved on average at the 36th percentile. Parents in high-poverty schools therefore can be easily misled into thinking that their child is doing fine, even though he is doing very poorly relative to national norms.

If alternative strategies to provide information are used, however, they must be clear and meaningful to parents. At the elementary level, they can be very concrete (e.g., understands single-digit addition and subtraction), and they should indicate whether a child has or has not achieved the expectations for his grade level. Really good report cards include suggestions for activities children can do at home to develop skills in areas in which they are having difficulty. It is useful to involve parents in efforts to revise reports that are sent home, and to pilot a new report on a subset of parents to make sure that it is clear and interpreted accurately.

Communicating standards to parents requires that they first be well understood by teachers. This usually requires a fair amount of professional development time, including time spent looking at student work and assessments to make sure that they have evidence for every student on where their skills are relative to the standards. If teachers have done this kind of careful analysis in a group, they should be prepared to explain standards to parents, as well as to show parents through their own children's work samples how their children are doing.

In my experience, it is very difficult to communicate standards effectively in writing, and it is inefficient for teachers to explain standards to parents individually at teacher-parent conferences. This time should be devoted as much as possible to the child's own progress. School programs organized by subject-area and grade level work most effectively. One strategy to improve parent attendance is to involve their children in demonstrating the work they are doing to achieve the standards. Having parents actually engage in activities is also helpful. The programs take time to organize, but they also save a great deal of time correcting misunderstandings and dealing with angry parents!


ABT Associates, Inc. (1997). Prospects: Final report on student outcomes. Author: Cambridge MA.



Defining “Fine”—Communicating Academic Progress to Parents Commentary by Jerold P. Bauch


Jerold P. Bauch is Professor Emeritus at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. His research is on parent involvement and school change. The syllabus for his course, Parents and Their Developing Children, is available in the Resources section of the FINE website.

Change in Schools: What Works and What Does Not

The pressures and forces for change in schools have often originated outside of the school. Members of the local school community are expected to do the implementation, and (often as an afterthought) have to communicate the change to parents. As nothing schools do is as personal as communicating academic progress to parents, this becomes a topic of vital interest for all constituents.

At Peterson Elementary School, the mandate for change was first transmitted to the principal, who must establish a process for accomplishing the change. How Principal Leonard starts the process, and how he provides leadership, will have a strong influence on the outcome (Theobald and Rochon, 1999). If he follows a model with high stakeholder participation, his leadership efforts will have to be focused on managing the process and supporting the teams and committees. If he uses a traditional model of decision making involving his staff and perhaps, outside consultants, he will have to be central to the action and will retain much of the responsibility for success or failure himself.

Another issue that will probably emerge as students discuss this case is the scope of the change. Some might see the challenge simply as revising the report cards. Others may see it as a whole school change that will affect the entire instructional program. Schools as complex social institutions seldom make isolated changes without collateral influence on people and other aspects of school operation. For example, if you change the procedure for reporting student progress to parents, you will have to consider what you are reporting, how students will reflect progress, and the relationship between learning objectives and assessment.

The use of standards to drive whole school reform has also been questioned. As Noddings opined, “It seems ludicrous to suppose that merely stating that ‘all children will perform task T at level P’ will accomplish much” (Noddings, 1999). The author raises concerns of the benefits to some students and the potential harm to many others, since standards rich enough for one might be less appropriate for others. The needs of individual students may be disregarded in favor of universal standards for all. Other possible problems may arise if a narrow set of standards is adopted and the school only reports to parents on acquisition of knowledge related to the standards. This may increase student failure and retention, which seldom produces positive results. And holding a school accountable to standards without a concomitant increase in instructional resources is destined for failure (Darling-Hammond and Falk, 1997).

Parents like Molly and Margot reflect some of the trends in the literature about standards-based education. Molly's concerns about her son's possible assignment to summer school is consistent with findings from the Public Agenda's survey (Johnson, et al., 2001) that less social promotion and more use of summer school to remediate performance are likely results. The survey also found that many parents are quite satisfied with their local schools just the way they are, and are therefore not very motivated to engage in complex school reform. Another survey found that found that 53% of public-school parents believed that students' broad education suffers from an overemphasis on standards-based testing (Teachers' Insurance, 2001). Parents in the survey thought that using standardized tests focused too much on the content in the test.

The Potential for a School/Home Partnership
A large body of evidence and professional opinion exists about the value of engaging parents in the process of school change (DuFour, 2000). In fact, many believe that meaningful reform is not actually possible without functional partnerships between parents and the school staff (Holland, 1999). Yet the parent involvement literature does not address whether or not a new progress reporting system based on standards is “better” for students than a more traditional reporting system. Instead, school leaders must try to anticipate the positive and negative effects of standards-based reform. For example, diverse student populations with a wide range of educational abilities and interests are likely to show differential results. Some students who might not “test well” could be further disenfranchised while those who can memorize very specific content may be reported as performing higher than appropriate.

The individual needs and the self-interest of each participant factor into how parents might view a new reporting strategy and how it affects their child, or the reaction of certain teachers to sharing “power” with the parents. These personal concerns will have to be acknowledged at every step in the case analysis.

If the school can successfully engage a representative group of parents as equity partners in the process of implementing the state mandate, there are concomitant benefits. As teachers and parents learn how to work cooperatively, the process can be transferred to other school issues and can put the school on a more positive trajectory. The combined energy of parents and the professional staff can be a powerful force for change, and the active involvement of the ultimate consumers of progress reporting (the parents) is much more likely to be accepted and embraced.


Darling-Hammond, L., & Falk, B. (1997). Using standards and assessments to support student learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 79, 190–201.

DuFour, R. (2001). Community: Clear connections. Journal of Staff Development, 21, 1–3.

Holland, H. Putting parents in their place. Education Week, 19, 33.

Johnson, J., et al. (2001). Public agenda reality check 2001. Education Week, 20, S1–S8.

Noddings, N. (1999). Thinking about standards. Phi Delta Kappan, 79, 184–189.

Teachers' Insurance Plan. (2001). Teachers' Insurance Plan National Educational Survey. White Plains, NY: Author. [Available at]

Theobald, P., & Rochon, R. (1999). Orchestrating simultaneous renewal. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 584–588.

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