"Parents these days just don't care,” a colleague complained to me one day. “I sent home progress reports two weeks ago, and so far only one parent has come in." The problem may not be the parents; it may be the progress reports.
Writing progress reports four or more times per year is probably one of the most time consuming duties teachers have. Ideally, every student should get a progress report, those that are doing great as well as those not doing so great. However, sending a progress report to every student is not always practical. If the student is doing well, the parents would love to hear it. Teachers may genuinely appreciate the chance to praise high-achieving students, but let's be honest. The main reason for progress reports is to alert parents that their student is on track to receive a poor grade come report card time. In some schools, progress reports are even called "deficiency reports." Supposedly if parents are notified in a timely matter, they will take steps to correct the problem. Yet most teachers do not expect, nor see, any real results in terms of student achievement.
How do you write a progress report that gets results? The secret is to write reports that are SPECIFIC and OBJECTIVE. This following sample progress report is easy to fill out, gets results and can be readily adapted for regular notification to parents even outside of progress report “season.”
A typical progress report might read, "Johnny is not doing well in class," a statement that is neither specific nor objective. It is not specific because a parent cannot tell from this report exactly what the child's problem might be. More than likely the parent will find getting additional accurate information from the child quite difficult, if not impossible. Such a report is also not objective because it expresses a judgment. It is possible that the parent has different goals than the teacher or draws a different conclusion from the same circumstances.
I once had a child from special education mainstreamed into my class without my knowledge. From the parent's point of view, this boy was "doing well" if he got through a school day without a violent outburst. His mother told me, "You should have seen him last year. He has really come a long way." The parent did not particularly care whether the boy did his homework or paid attention.
A better progress report might read, "Johnny isn't turning in his homework. He is disruptive in class." This report may seem to be both more specific and objective than the first one, but it actually gives very little useful information to the parent. If Johnny has turned in even one or two assignments, he will insist to his parents that he did so turn in his homework. If the parents come in at all, they will say, "But he says he has turned in his homework." The parent will likely have trouble dealing with the report of class disruption. The child will insist he has done nothing, or that the teacher doesn't like him. Parents need to know exactly what the child did that was disruptive in order to effectively discuss it with their child.
Some teachers are reluctant to be explicit because they do not want to drag out the heavy ammunition. They hope that a gentle, diplomatic hint will be enough, but it rarely is. I have read cumulative folders of troubled middle schoolers with copies of notes the first grade teacher wrote saying, "Sarah is working on socialization skills." Parents read that and think, "That's wonderful. Sarah is working on socialization skills. Very good." They often do not realize that the teacher is trying to say that Sarah is not getting along well with other children, or worse.
What can a teacher do to make sure progress reports get results?
1. HAVE A PLAN
Progress reports should be just one element of a well-thought-out classroom management plan, not an add-on. Some extra work in the first quarter will pay dividends the rest of the school year. Before the first day of school, write out your classroom policies, grading policies and consequences for misbehavior. Send these home with students with a tear-off slip at the bottom for parents to sign. Make the return of these signed slips the first homework assignment.
Ask the school to print three sets of class mailing labels for you. Or have the students address three envelopes to their parents. Or collect the email addresses of the parents as part of the contact information. There is really no point in sending a progress report home with the students; parents may never see them. Snail mail is only a little better, but it depends on who gets to the mailbox first.
2. COLLECT DATA
Teachers have usually figured out the class dynamics within the first couple weeks of school. Document this knowledge by keeping a record of who has their materials, who turns in their homework, who pays attention, etc. Make an informal tally sheet for checking off observations. Keep an anecdotal record of specific offenses, either written down or dictated into a tape recorder. It may sound like a mammoth bookkeeping job, and one thing teachers do not need is more paperwork. I give each student two lines in my grade book, one for grades and one for my private data coding and reporting system. It can be difficult in the beginning to keep the grade book handy and quickly code your observations as they occur or immediately after class. With time and practice it gets easier.
3. OFFER HELP EARLY
After two or three weeks, give students with missing assignments an opportunity to make up the work. Offer tutorial sessions for students who are behind. Keep a record of who comes in and what they accomplish.
4. PRE-FORMAT THE PROGRESS REPORTS
The progress report forms provided by most schools are inadequate. Design your own customized forms with fill-in blanks. Include the school's phone number and invite parents to make a conference appointment. If using email, it is a simple matter to attach the progress report to an email. Feel free to adapt the sample form below.
5. WRITING THE REPORT
The key is to be objective and avoid passing judgment. Give parents enough information to make their own judgments. Use the sandwich approach for criticisms: something positive, something negative, something positive. Be as specific as possible:
"Johnny did not bring his textbook to 4 out of 15 class meetings." NOT "Johnny comes to class unprepared."
"Peter threw spit wads in class on three occasions." NOT "Peter is disruptive in class."
Use positive sentence constructions whenever possible:
"Sarah has turned in 5 out of 20 homework assignments." NOT "Sarah has failed to turn in 15 out of 20 assignments."
"Sean has passed 4 out of 6 pop quizzes." NOT “Sean has failed 2 out of 6 pop quizzes."
Refer to the policy letter you sent home at the beginning of the school year. Tell parents whether the signed slip was returned or not. Mention any special efforts to help the student and the student's response:
"Mary attended 2 tutoring sessions during lunch and made up 3 missing assignments."
Even if the progress report is positive, be specific. Show, don't tell. An opening such as "Johnny is a pleasure to have in class" should be followed by an example, "He pays attention and asks insightful questions." An illustrative anecdote is best. “Johnny invented a creative new way to model negative numbers with the Algebra Lab Gear.
6. MAIL THE PROGRESS REPORTS
The whole point of progress reports is to keep parents informed. Therefore mail them directly instead of sending them home with students. Or email them. Your school may have its own progress report policies. Many schools require the distribution of hard copy progress reports to be signed by parents and returned. Normally you can customize your progress reports while accommodating school policies.
The first time I sent out progress reports according to these guidelines, the reaction was swift and sure. The day after the reports arrived home, several students appeared in my room at lunch time, lunch bags in hand. "My dad says I have to eat lunch with you until I catch up on all my homework," said one. "Yeah, me too," said another. The students came because their parents had sent them, and they came every day until the zeros were gone. They took their new-found diligence into the regular class as well, and they were rightfully pleased when their quarter grades showed it.
Sample Progress Report (on school letterhead)
PROGRESS REPORT TO PARENTS
STUDENT'S NAME: ______________________________ SUBJECT: _______________
DATE:___________________ GRADE TO DATE: _________
____ out of ____homework assignments completed.
Returned signed policy slip? ____Yes ____No
Passed ____ out of ____ quizzes.
Make up work: ____Completed ____Incomplete ____NA
Has participated in tutoring sessions? ____Yes ____No
Test Scores: ________
____Excellent ____Satisfactory ____Needs Improvement
ATTITUDE AND CONDUCT:
____Well-mannered and courteous:
____ Unexcused Tardies ____Unexcused Absences
If desired, call xxx-xxxx to arrange a parent-teacher conference.
Date:__________ Teacher's Signature:____________________
I have read and understood this progress report.
Parent's Signature: ________________________