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Why Delaware schools need a Parent Dashboard

March 26, 2012

In those heady early days after Delaware’s Race To The Top grant was awarded, Governor Markell blogged about the Education Insight project, announcing a Teacher Dashboard as well as a Parent Dashboard:

Another significant element of our education reform plan is the improved collection and use of data. Teachers, school leaders and parents need real feedback in real time to determine how our students are doing, so we are building systems to make that possible.

This will eventually include a new Parent Dashboard that will enable parents to go online at anytime and see critical measures and data regarding their children’s progress. The “Insight Portal” will pilot in Fall 2011, starting with dashboards for teachers, and the Parent Dashboards should become available in the 2011-2012 school year.

Now in March 2012, the Governor’s 2010 blog post seems like a bit of irrational exuberance. The Teacher Dashboard is due this month (delayed by amendment), and the first public sighting is eagerly awaited. And a Parent Dashboard isn’t on the drawing board. According to DDOE last month:

The state will focus on the needs of parents in later phases. Currently work is not being done on a parent dashboard and planned work will take us thorough 2013.

In fairness, DDOE also points out that parents currently have access to the dashboard-like Home Access Center, but teachers don’t yet have an integrated view for all their data. So the first priority is the Teacher Dashboard.

However, the same amendment that delayed the Teacher Dashboard from August 2011 to March 2012 also promised with maddening ambiguity to “Complete the expansion of the Dashboard to support other user groups by March 2013.” Who are those other user groups, if not parents? Administrators, perhaps?

There is good reason to begin planning for a Parent Dashboard now, and a good reason to do it ourselves instead of continuing to rely on the proprietary Home Access Center (HAC). We should go through the exercise of defining requirements and scoping the work for a Parent Dashboard. Even if we don’t go through with building it, the exercise will help us understand how to use our current system to increase student performance and parent involvement.

The main requirement for a Parent Dashboard should be that it completely replaces all the features of the Home Access Center, and then exceeds them by adding new data and new features using the power of the Education Insight infrastructure.

[…]

Expanding the vision
The Governor was right to title his post “Involving Parents in Education,” acknowledging the power of technology to increase parent involvement. The Governor correctly stated the need for parent access to real-time information, but didn’t go quite far enough. He stated that the Parent Dashboard would:

…enable parents to go online at anytime and see critical measures and data regarding their children’s progress.

A Parent Dashboard that simply shows you what grades your child got last week, or how DCAS scores trended last year, is hardly real-time. It is no longer enough simply to monitor progress – now we need to provide tools to enable progress. What parents (and students) need most is not last week’s grades, but this week’s assignments.

(Let’s pause for a moment and stipulate that a “Parent Dashboard” should also be used by students and is probably better called the “Home Dashboard.” )

A Parent Dashboard should show parents and students not only graded assignments, but also what they did in class today, and what assignments or tests they need to do tonight and for the rest of the week.

The Parent Dashboard should also include the ability for the teacher to easily enter longer notes or instructions describing expectations for the assignment, along with the ability to attach other document resources such as handouts or instructions, so these resources can be downloaded by students and parents. [Update: Dashboards are only for displaying data, not for entering it. Still a good idea for the teacher’s data-entry page though.]

Why HAC isn’t working for parents
Delaware’s current parent portal is the Home Access Center (HAC), part of the eSchoolPLUS system which is Delaware’s current Student Information System. HAC provides many desirable features of a parent portal.

However, although the system has many of the features we want, policy never advanced to take full advantage of them. All the way back to the 2004 rollout of eSchoolPLUS, the ability for teachers to enter assignments in advance and attach helpful documents was downplayed by DDOE and the districts, and never became part of school culture. Teachers are trained that eSchoolPLUS is their “gradebook” and not also a powerful tool for communicating assignments to the home. So in my experience, most teachers enter assignments after the due dates, too late for useful communication. (There are some teachers who “get it” and use HAC before the due dates, but there are not enough of them).

HAC in its current incarnation is very likely not used by many parents. The actual usage rate has never been measured, because eSchoolPLUS does not provide this report, and I have not been able to persuade Delaware system administrators to create it as a custom report. We will find out soon though, because 13 out of 19 Delaware districts have committed to producing this report beginning at the end of the 2012 school year. I’m not sure how they intend to do it.

I think the first reports of HAC usage will be shockingly low. And I’ll speculate that the biggest reason usage is low is that without advance communication of assignments. there is little reason for parents to log into HAC. Weeks-old grade information is of little use. To increase usage, increase the value of the information.

A Delaware-designed Parent Dashboard should make it glaringly clear that it is designed to convey future assignments and documents to parents and students.

Digital divide
Families who do not have computers or Internet access usually have some other communication channel like a telephone, a smart phone, or a cell phone that accepts text messages. All of these are channels that can be used for linking schools to families. But Sungard’s Home Access Center does not support these channels. If Delaware builds its own Parent Dashboard, we can specify that it supports these alternate channels.

Vendor lock-in and inflexibility
HAC is part of eSchoolPLUS, and is licensed from the vendor Sungard. It is a nationally distributed product, and to make any changes or customizations in response to the needs of Delaware parents, DDOE would have to persuade or pay Sungard to make the changes to its product. That is, if you could manage to convince DDOE to make the request in the first place. Therefore, as a proprietary product, eSchoolPLUS/HAC is relatively inflexible and unresponsive to its consumers.

In fact, as I found out when looking for information, Sungard has an explicit policy of not engaging with parents, but to forward all parent communications to DDOE instead. Because after all, that’s who signs their check.

But a Parent Dashboard would belong to the people of Delaware, and could be customized and updated as needed by DDOE, who would hopefully be more responsive to the Delawareans who use their product.

We can’t build a Parent Dashboard, because Texas hasn’t built one yet!
Just about every part of the Education Insight Infrastructure was built first in Texas, then copied and implemented in Delaware (with some tweaks and finishing touches). Now that we have this powerful Education Insight infrastructure, it’s time to get out in front of the “not built in Texas” syndrome and move ahead with new tools that are responsive to Delaware’s needs as we define them, this time with meaningful parent input.

With a Parent Dashboard built for parent and student needs, Delaware would become a national leader in using technology to increase parent involvement and student performance. Let’s get it built before the money runs out!

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  1. wydok
    March 31, 2012 at 9:24 am

    The Daily Summary Home Access Center screen is capable of displaying assignments due this week, assuming teachers are mandated to enter those assignments ahead of time. It is possible those assignments have been entered into their gradebook, but are not currently published to parents.

    What other information do you think should be on the dashboard? Line graphs showing trends and/or progress on assignments, tests, attendance, etc? Graduation requirement information, including percent of credits completed toward graduation, etc?

  2. March 31, 2012 at 10:22 am

    It is possible those assignments have been entered into their gradebook, but are not currently published to parents.

    I once caught a teacher keeping hidden assignments in HAC. You can tell because although the assignment isn’t displayed, the points for the hidden assignment are displayed in the running average at the bottom.

    In Red Clay at least, the teacher user manual states that it is required to publish assignments to parents. This requirement should be promoted to official policy. Better yet, the system should be reconfigured to make it impossible for teachers to hide assignments from parents and students.

    The Daily Summary view says it shows only “classwork,” leaving out other categories such as upcoming tests or homework. The Classwork view shows all categories.

    The long-term trend info is nice to have, but really a Parent Dashboard should, as the Governor said, be focused on real-time information – data that happens in the classroom every day. A Parent Dashboard should be a window into the classroom.

    What other information do you think should be on the dashboard?

    Glad you asked 🙂 Just for starters:

    1. Some sort of view for upcoming work that makes it inescapably obvious to parents, teachers, and administrators that the dashboard is designed to display upcoming assignments. If there is no assignment published, maybe let the view default to “NO ASSIGNMENTS” or something like that.

    2. Access to a monthly report showing overall dashboard usage rates for the school, the district, and compared against all districts. Maybe this report belongs in district profiles rather than parent dashboard, but I’d like to see it somewhere. This report would be a key metric for measuring parent involvement.

    3. Homework completion rate. Currently DDOE can, if it wanted to, calculate homework completion rate simply by counting zeroes against non-zeroes for homework. The same could be done for classwork as well as homework. More refined reports could be constructed with additional work, but the basic report would be a good start. I’d like to see homework completion rate not only for my student, but for the teacher, the school, and the districts.

    With an easily obtained completion metric, teachers and schools could measure the results of their strategies to improve completion of homework and classwork. And the districts could see which teachers are having better success, and find out what they are doing differently to get those good completion rates.

    4. Timestamp showing the time teachers entered the assignment. Currently there’s no way to tell when it was entered. There is a “Date Assigned” field but teachers may enter any date or even leave it blank. This timestamp would be a key metric for school-home communication.

    This timestamp should be accompanied by a report showing the teacher’s success rate for entering assignments before they are due, or for entering grades within the allotted time.

    5. A larger space for teachers to enter notes. This feature would replace the need for external blogs or websites. [this would be nice but is not part of a dashboard. Teachers write notes on their Sungard/eSchoolPLUS gradebook, not on a dashboard. So adding more notespace would require Sungard to modify their Teacher Access Center. ]

    6. Multiple document attachments allowed to be attached to courses and assignments HAC allows only one attachment (I think).

    7. Export to nicely formatted PDF printouts and spreadsheets. (ever try printing from HAC? It looks like crap).

    8. Alternate access methods via telephone, text message. A lightweight version for dial-up access. Let’s stop just talking about the Digital Divide and do something about it.

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