ON school days at 2 p.m., Nicole Dobbins walks into her home office in Alpharetta, Ga., logs on to ParentConnect, and reads updated reports on her three children. Then she rushes up the block to meet the fourth and sixth graders’ buses.
But in the thump and tumble of backpacks and the gobbling of snacks, Mrs. Dobbins refrains from the traditional after-school interrogation: Did you cut math class? What did you get on your language arts test?
Thanks to ParentConnect, she already knows the answers. And her children know she knows. So she cuts to the chase: “Tell me about this grade,” she will say.
When her ninth grader gets home at 6 p.m., there may well be ParentConnect printouts on his bedroom desk with poor grades highlighted in yellow by his mother. She will expect an explanation. He will be braced for a punishment.
“He knows I’m going to look at ParentConnect every day and we will address it,” Mrs. Dobbins said.
A profusion of online programs that can track a student’s daily progress, including class attendance, missed assignments and grades on homework, quizzes and tests, is changing the nature of communication between parents and children, families and teachers. With names like Edline, ParentConnect, Pinnacle Internet Viewer and PowerSchool, the software is used by thousands of schools, kindergarten through 12th grade. PowerSchool alone is used by 10,100 schools in 49 states.
Although a few programs have been available for a decade, schools have been using them more in recent years as federal reporting requirements have expanded and home computers have become more common. Citing studies showing that parental involvement can have a positive effect on a child’s academic performance, educators praise the programs’ capacity to engage parents.
In rural, urban and suburban districts, they have become a new fact of life for thousands of families. At best, the programs can be the Internet’s bright light into the bottomless backpack, an antidote for freshman forgetfulness, an early warning system and a lie detector.
But sometimes there is collateral damage: exacerbated stress about daily grades and increased family tension.
“The good is very good,” said Nancy Larsen, headmaster of Fairfield Ludlowe High School in Connecticut, which uses Edline. “And the bad can become very ugly.”
At an age when teenagers increasingly want to manage their own lives, many parents use these programs to tighten the grip. College admission is so devastatingly competitive, parents say, they feel compelled to check online grades frequently. Parents hope to transform even modest dips before a child’s record is irrevocably scarred.
“I tell my son, ‘What you do as a freshman will matter to you as a senior,’ ” Mrs. Dobbins said. “ ‘It will haunt you or applaud you.’ ”
Depending on the software, parents can check pending assignments; incomplete assignments; whether a child has been late to class; discipline notices; and grades on homework, quizzes and tests as soon as they are posted. They can also receive e-mail alerts on their cellphones.
With some programs, not only is a student’s grade recalculated with every quiz, but parents can monitor the daily fluctuations of their child’s class ranking. The availability of so much up-to-the-minute information about a naturally evasive teenager can be intoxicating: one Kansas parent compared watching PowerSchool to tracking the stock market.
Kathleen DeBuys, a mother of four in Roswell, Ga., used to check her e-mail first thing in the morning: the ParentConnect alerts would fly in by 6 a.m. The subject line might read, “Claire has received a failing grade. ...”
“And I’d freak out,” said Mrs. DeBuys, speaking of her oldest child, then a high school freshman. “I’d be waking her up, shouting: ‘Claire! What did you fail? What is wrong with you?’ She’d pull the pillow over her head and say, ‘Leave me alone!’ ”
Usually the explanation was benign: there was an inputting error, or Claire had missed the class because she had been sick or pulled out for a gifted-and-talented program. But the family’s morning was already flayed.
“It was horrible,” Mrs. DeBuys said.
Many students, in fact, like the programs, which let them monitor their records. Their biggest complaint is their parents’ unfettered access. “I don’t think kids have privacy,” said Emily Tarantino, 13, a middle-school student from Farmingdale, N.Y. “It’s not like anyone asked our opinion before they gave parents the passwords.”