Credit: David Vergara

A school department survey of the district’s parents revealed concerns about academic standards, especially at the town’s five elementary schools.

When asked, “Over the past school year, how high were the school’s academic standards for your child?” only one-third of parents viewed the standards as either “quite high” or “extremely high.” Of the eight areas surveyed, academic standards was the only one that failed to receive at least a 50% favorability rating.

By contrast, survey queries regarding school climate, infrastructure, school fit and cultural awareness all received favorable response rates above 60%.

The survey, administered in May, drew 1,352 responses. The 24.5% response rate was lower than those for past parent surveys. 

Slightly more than one-third of parents felt the academic standards were “not high standards at all” or only “slightly high standards.” Another third of the respondents considered the standards to be “somewhat high.” 

The survey was led by Diane Simmons, director of strategic planning and community engagement, who described the 33% academic standards favorability percentage as a significant drop from the rate in past surveys. 

“We were at 57% favorable for 2018,” Simmons told the School Committee at last week’s meeting.

Answers varied dramatically across the grades, with parents of older students rating academic standards higher than those of younger students. [Click chart]

It’s what’s NOT in the backpacks

Where about one-third of parents see academic rigor as lacking, school officials instead see the need for better communication. They said adjustments in instructional technology and methods —not a lowering of standards — are what have some parents piqued.

School Committee member Alissa Skatrud observed that parents of elementary school students may be drawing an incorrect conclusion from the fact their children are not coming home with as many worksheets or other types of “paper” work as has been traditional.

“So much happens on iPads or in Google Drive,” she said at last week’s School Committee meeting, where the survey results were discussed. “I mean, I brought home my spelling tests every week, my math tests. It’s not as concrete for parents anymore.”

“There’s a bit of a communication gap with parents’ understanding of what is happening in the classroom,” she said. “We know from a ton of data, including our long list of National Merit scholars and our MCAS data, that we have high academic standards. But parents aren’t feeling that.”

The effect of the disruptions caused by the global pandemic since the 2018 survey was cited as a likely contributing factor.

Amy Kelley Chan, mother of first and fourth graders at Broadmeadow Elementary School where she is co-president of the PTC, said she’s not terribly surprised by the survey outcomes. 

“I think there are a couple of factors to take into consideration,” said Chan, who is informed not only by her status as a parent and PTC president, but also as a pediatrician with a special understanding of child development.

Referring to her fourth grader, Chan noted, “That grade was in first grade when COVID hit, a critical time in their development.” She pointed out that parents of fourth graders gave the lowest marks among all grade levels when it came to rating academic standards. 

Chan suggested some parents may believe time spent on social/emotional learning may be detracting from academics. “I don’t think it’s an either/or. I think they complement one another.

“I think the schools are doing everything they possibly can to incorporate a lot of the social emotional support and language and lessons while still maintaining the academic standards,” she said.

 “If we learned anything coming out of the pandemic, it’s that we can’t just focus on academics or strictly on social/emotional, we have to support the child as a whole.” 

Dan Gutekanst, superintendent of schools, said the results indicate “the district probably needs to do some increased work in helping parents understand what the standards are at the elementary level.

“We’ve always encouraged reading but not to the degree we do now. And folks don’t always see that as homework.

“I think parents have greater clarity at the secondary level. They see more homework and other things coming home — which is not necessarily true at the elementary level.”

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