On a recent Saturday, at precisely 11:33 a.m., Tess opened the door to her son’s bedroom to confront him about an issue that comes up just about every day with at least one of her five kids: missing schoolwork. She had just received an automated email from Schoology — an app that tracks whether her California high-schooler’s assignments have been turned in, shows how many points he earned on each one, and displays his overarching grades — and discovered that a mock brochure he was supposed to create for Spanish 2 was missing. “I’ve got it under control,” Mason barked. He explained that the teacher probably hadn’t graded the project yet, then reiterated, “You don’t have to ask me.”
“Do I trust the app? Do I trust my kid? He’s a 14-year-old boy, like, is he trying to get away with something?” Tess asks me days later. She says she knows her son is capable of staying on top of his work and catching up if he falls behind. But teachers input due dates, and when they pass (even if the teacher has verbally granted the class an extension), the software alerts not just Tess but also Mason’s stepdad, Mason’s other mom, his academic adviser, and his water-polo coach. The coach benches players, including from practices, until the Schoology system registers that all of their schoolwork is current. Because Mason’s team was scheduled to play a game that afternoon, Tess felt forced to raise the issue. (Laced with irony, the brochure was for una escuela ideal.)
After Mason shooed his mom away, he played in the tournament. Tess assumes he sorted out the assignment himself, but the issue is so fraught that she hesitates to ask him what happened. As it was, she says the interaction left them both frustrated and feeling intruded upon — Mason by his mother and Tess by Schoology.
Schoology, also known as PowerSchool (the name of the company that acquired it in 2019), is one of more than a dozen “learning-management systems” that have been billed as a bridge between school and home. The open grade book these apps offer was developed to digitize teachers’ records, making them more accessible to administrators. The student- and parent-facing portals really only began to proliferate during the pandemic. With distance learning, many schools increased parent visibility to keep kids from floundering without anyone noticing and to enable teachers to give marching orders to parents conscripted as homeschool instructors.
These days, open-grade-book software is used in the majority of public and private high schools in America, and learning-management software is valued at $17.36 billion globally. Parents and kids can see an eight out of ten on a quadratic-equations quiz or 77 out of 100 on notes about “Muscovite Society Before Westernization.” They can also watch grades change in real time, with an A-minus on a unit test transforming an overall science grade from a C to a B. Some apps also allow parents to sign up for a push notification when their child’s GPA drops.
Research has long tied family engagement in schools to better outcomes for students, but there’s a critical difference between grade transparency and relationship building. Accessing a glut of information doesn’t necessarily lead to more contact with teachers or a better understanding of what’s happening in the classroom. For one thing, higher income English-speaking parents can access the portals and navigate them more easily. And even when the goal of constant monitoring is reached, these apps have unintended consequences for family dynamics, often interrupting weekends, increasing conflict, keeping kids up at night, and making parents feel forced into an intensive, helicopter style of parenting. This software can change the way parents and kids interact with teachers, too, with the nature of the data — points and percentages — encouraging negotiation rather than cooperation.
Kelsey, a law-school professor in Washington, D.C., says she’s happy grade portals exist so that she can help her daughter Aria, who has a diagnosis of ADHD, stay on top of assignments. As a Black mother whose child has attended majority white schools and has all white teachers this year, Kelsey says she needs the information to advocate for her child. Last year in eighth grade, Aria seemed to be holding to a high A in math all term, but it turned out the teacher hadn’t graded a lot of the work. He submitted those grades on the last day of the semester, and unbeknownst to Aria and her mother, Aria was missing a few assignments. Those received zeros, and Aria’s overall grade fell to a B.
Earlier this year, Aria started at a parochial high school. Kelseys says that at orientation, the principal told parents to check the portal at least once a week, calling that day “PowerSchool Fridays.” In many of Aria’s classes, assignments turned in more than a couple of days late get a maximum of 50 percent credit. With these high stakes, Kelsey feels she has no choice but to follow the principal’s guidance and check weekly. But thanks to her type-A personality and the addictive nature of the software, she often ends up checking it more than that — and pestering her daughter and ex-husband, who has custody of Aria some nights, with reminders. That labor is “a heavy lift,” and it puts a strain on her relationships, Kelsey says. Plus the portal taps into her anxiety about being a good parent. She says she thinks, “How did I not know you were missing these assignments?” and “Oh crap, I’m messing up.” Even though Kelsey’s glad she can check, she says checking isn’t good for her mental health.
Others point out that open grade books have caused schools to lose sight of their real goal: facilitating learning and development. Tanya taught Spanish and English to high-school students on the Upper West Side and in Washington Heights and Chelsea for 17 years. “It used to be that during parent-teacher conferences, I would tell parents how interested their child seemed in the class and how they were working with others,” she says. “Post-online grade books, it became a very pointed conversation over a spreadsheet.” In decades past, students who received a disappointing grade worked to understand the material better. Now, “pushed by their parents, they come haggling for points, asking to redo the assignment or make test corrections.” She recalls how one set of parents “freaked out” when their child missed an in-class assignment due to illness. They calmed down once she explained it could be made up at lunch or after school and the grade would go back up. “Those were the magic words,” she says, “That was all they cared about.”
Tanya says these apps “sucked the intrinsic motivation” from her students; increasingly, they viewed achievement as the holy grail, not learning. As a result, she says cheating became more rampant, and speed-grading was required. “They want to see the grade go up and down in real time, like the value of a stock,” she says. But Tanya couldn’t grade assignments immediately while also providing meaningful feedback. For these reasons and a few others, she left the teaching profession. Of online grade books, Tanya says, “I think overall they do more harm than good.”
Tess also has a 12-year-old daughter, Avery, who struggles to manage her anxiety when faced with uncertainty. Her middle school gives students access to Schoology. “She’s constantly like, ‘Did they grade that test? Did they grade that essay?’” says Tess. Tess was putting Avery to bed on a Friday in September, and all her child could think about was a social-studies test she’d taken on Monday. She had her pajamas on and was clutching her school-issued iPad and “refreshing, refreshing,” says Tess. The score came in around 8 p.m. “Oh, thank goodness,” she said. Avery had nothing to say about the history unit — what she liked about it, what stumped her. It was just, “I’m so relieved.”
Tess says she wishes the school would post grades only at specific times. If the teacher had said, “I’ll update the scores Friday between three and five,” Tess says, “I think that solves a lot of anxiety and a lot of inclination to just keep checking.” Some schools have done that. Others have experimented with blackout periods over the weekend or around finals. (At Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut, for example, teachers proposed blackout times for both students and parents to quell “unhealthy obsession,” senior Madison Mayr reported for the student newspaper.) Some schools have even staggered release times so that students can see their scores, process them, and come up with a plan before their parents have access to the information.
Dr. Jodi Gold is a board-certified adult and child psychiatrist who runs the Gold Center for Mind Health and Wellness in New York City and a parent to three adolescents. She says her young patients frequently say their parents ambush them about their grades. They walk in the door or sit down at the dinner table eager to have a respite from the pressures of the school day only to be interrogated about a disappointing test result or upcoming essay deadline. “There’s a lot of yelling and screaming at the kids. ‘Why didn’t you turn in this math homework, this Spanish homework?’ she says. Being policed leaves kids feeling less competent, less in control and less like their parents value them regardless of what they achieve, she adds.
Gold has seen parents hire executive-functioning coaches to go on Schoology and organize a plan for completing assignments. (Many of them have master’s degrees and charge around $200 per hour.) She says, “Coaching and support are wonderful as long as they don’t lead to a learned helplessness where kids don’t feel they have the skills to manage their own schoolwork.” She’s watched teenagers become shockingly dependent. “I have many, many super-high-functioning young adults starting college, and they literally can’t place a Starbucks order without texting their moms,” Gold tells me.
Even with all this knowledge, Gold sometimes has an urge to keep tabs on her own children’s grades, especially when she gets anxious about their college chances. “I’ve worked really hard to just sort of trust my kids,” she says. “By tracking their grades, all you do is send a message that you don’t trust them and that they can’t do it on their own.” Constant monitoring can increase the number of assignments turned in. “But at what cost?” she asks.
Anna, a mother of two who lives in Gramercy, says the topic of open grade books came up at a recent PTA meeting for her child’s high school in Queens. The president raised a motion to help the high school fund Jupiter, a grade-book app. The woman argued: “We absolutely need to have a grading system, since we are a world-class school,” Anna recalls. But then another parent piped in, arguing that “real-time grade monitoring is super-stressful, and we don’t want it.” A third called the app “too intrusive,” Anna says.
Anna mostly agrees with that viewpoint. Although she got her son an Algebra tutor last year when she noticed his math grade “tanking,” she doesn’t want him to rely on her monitoring and intervening long term. But she may not have a choice in the matter. The PTA voted in favor of Jupiter, and the open-grade-book system will roll out soon.
The names of some sources have been changed to protect children’s privacy.