Gen-X parents putting tighter rein on schools

October 16, 2005 | By Daniel Scarpinato

Jessica Wolf is being watched.

Every homework assignment she turns in, every class she attends, every test the 15-year-old sophomore takes at Sabino High School, her mother, Tina, can simply log on to her home computer and check her daughter’s academic progress.

That kind of oversight is possible via Tucson Unified School District’s parental-access system, an online network that allows parents to track attendance and grades and e-mail teachers. At some other local schools, parents can even check what their kids buy for lunch. The access system is entering its second year and other local districts are jumping on board with similar technology.

Experts say the moves are illustrative of a national desire on the part of parents for quick, tailor-made information—a trend being driven by Generation X parents such as 42-year-old Tina Wolf.

Generation X is that maturing group of folks born between 1961 and 1981, according to some demographic experts who group them together based on social and cultural factors they share. For years, sociologists have documented their influence on advertising, the corporate world and politics. And as more and more of them start to replace baby boomers as parents of school-aged children, their impact is being felt in schools, too.

Yes, the kids who watched the Smurfs on Saturday morning and danced to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” at night are now parents. And they’re demanding transparency and accountability in school operations, hiring practices and grading formulas, experts and local educators say, things that don’t always blend well with the bureaucracy of the public school system. What’s more, Gen-X’s give-it-to-me-now attitude, which helped drive the Internet age, now is driving the success of charter schools that market directly to them.

There’s no way to track the ages of parents of schoolchildren, but think of it this way: If the youngest possible baby boomer—born in 1960—had a child when he or she was 30, that student now would be midway through high school and looking toward college, clearing the way for Gen-X parents to take control of K-12 schools.

Eleven percent of TUSD students’ parents have signed up for the access site, which started last school year and is available in Spanish, too.

Officials joke that they’re lucky it wasn’t around when they were kids. After signing up for a password through their student’s school, parents can access an impressive amount of information: AIMS scores, homework assignments, test grades and daily attendance.

“I can keep track of the kids’ grades and any assignments,” says Tina Wolf, a bookkeeper who also has a senior at Sabino. “We don’t have to wait until progress reports are in. Now, you can just go log on on a weekly basis and see what’s missing right away.”

Jessica has mixed feelings.

“I may have not done so good on a test, either I didn’t get it or just got a bad grade,” she says. “Next, my mom’s asking 20 questions and needs to know everything.”

At the same time, the approach keeps her on track, she says. She’s a member of the soccer team and if her grades fall behind, she could be taken off the field. And Jessica says the system, used by the parents of some of her friends, has changed some school dynamics.

“Some get busted,” she said. “Some get praise for doing good work.”

Schools in the Sunnyside, Amphitheater and Marana districts all are moving toward launching or building similar systems. Marana’s Web site now allows parents to check whether their students bought a full lunch or just something at the snack bar, district spokeswoman Tamara Crawley says. There are plans to expand the system with additional information on what specific snacks kids buy, she says.

The Gen-Xers also are driving the rush to charter and nontraditional schools, experts say, because they want schools to make their lives easier through direct marketing, practical solutions for their kids and individual attention.

The effects these parents are causing are on full display in local schools, and not just in computerized systems. There’s dropping enrollment in Tucson’s established schools as parents look for alternatives; state and federal accountability measures are in full gear; kids are taking a number of standardized tests; parents are involved in hiring teachers and principals at some school sites; top administrators are talking for the first time about a focus on “customer service;” and one local magnet school even resorted to advertising on pizza boxes last year in an attempt to increase enrollment.

“I would say, given my experience, the needs of the two generations are different,” said Richard Faidley, Amphitheater’s executive director of student services. “The expectations have changed given the accountability and standards movement. We’re in a highly technological world now, and I think the expectations of the parents is that the students who go through the school district are proficient in 21st century skills.”

But the parental involvement can be hard to handle sometimes, some educators say.

Jill Ronsman, a school counselor at Sabino High, encourages all parents to use the access system. The school now has more users than any other Tucson school. And while the system allows for valuable parent-teacher communication, it also can create burdens for teachers because it’s in its infancy. Since people are still learning to use it, and information sometimes is expected to be up immediately, she said.

“We tell parents they have to give teachers a week to load some things up,” she said. “You can’t grade every single day.”

The impact of so-called “helicopter parents” has been well-publicized, but William Strauss, a leading author and researcher of generational differences, says the Gen-X parents take it to a new level. He calls them “Stealth fighter parents.”

Helicopter parents hover and drop in when necessary, he said. But the newest crop of parents “move with stunning swiftness and know how to use technology when the need arises,” Strauss says.

Boomer parents, Strauss says, are more inclined to trust teachers and the education system. By contrast, “ Gen-Xers will assume they have easy and direct access to teachers and expect transparency and accountability in everything from grades to safety.”

That makes sense, says Debbie Summers, principal of Utterback Middle Magnet School in TUSD and an educator for 29 years.

“In my generation, the teacher was probably never wrong,” she said. “Today, parents want to see that transparency and because of that they are becoming more involved. The whole accountability system has awakened an interest in education that we hadn’t seen for a while.”

Additionally, while boomers view education in a large social context, Gen-X parents want the best possible education for their own children and aren’t concerned about other people’s children, Strauss says.

Kellie Rodolph, a 33-year-old parent in the Catalina Foothills Unified School District, can identify with almost all the generalizations of Gen-X parents.

In a way, she feels as though her education was a bit lacking. That’s typical of Gen-Xers, Strauss says, because their parents—many in the boomer group—were told to put themselves before their kids. Now, Rodolph is making sure her daughter gets every available opportunity.

“I don’t feel like the teachers really did anything to help me improve my math skills,” she says. “Now, my daughter isn’t struggling as much as I was. I make sure I talk to the teachers. I want to know how she’s doing, and honestly, I don’t really care about how any other kid in the class is doing.”

Tina Wolf is skeptical of blanket statements about age groups, but finds herself following most of the cultural shifts.

“I do think I differ from my parents’ generation,” she said. “I am much more on top of things than I remember my parents being.”