Evena Joseph didn’t know how much her 10-year-old son was struggling in school. She only found out with the help of someone who knows the Boston school system better than she does.
Her son, J. Ryan Mathurin, was not always comfortable pronouncing words in English. But Joseph, a Haitian immigrant who raised him alone, didn’t know how far behind he was in reading—in the 30th percentile—until a hospital treating her son connected her to a bilingual lawyer.
“I am sad and disappointed,” Joseph said through an interpreter. “Only because I got an educational lawyer do I know this about my son.”
It is widely known from test scores that the pandemic hit students across the country. But many parents don’t realize that their child is with them.
Schools have long been criticized for not informing certain parents about their children’s academic progress. But after the COVID-19 school closures, the stakes for children have never been higher in many ways. Opportunities to catch up abound in some places, thanks to federal COVID assistance, but won’t last forever. Better communication with parents is needed to help students get the support they need, experts say.
“Parents can’t solve a problem they don’t know they have,” said Cindi Williams, co-founder of Learning Heroes, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving communication between public schools and parents about student progress. students.
A 2022 survey by Learning Heroes of 1,400 public school parents nationwide found that 92% believed their children were performing at grade level. But in a federal survey, school officials said half of U.S. students started this academic year behind in at least one subject.
At home, J. Ryan races through multiplication problems at his dinner table. His mother watches as he ponders a paragraph on weather systems for several minutes, struggling to answer questions about the lecture.
“Sometimes I don’t understand the writing style or the main idea of the text,” J. Ryan said after putting away his homework.
The struggle that took J. Ryan to the hospital for mental health treatment began in third grade, when he returned to physical school after nearly a year of studying online. His teacher called often, sometimes every day. J. Ryan became frustrated, disrupted classes and left the classroom.
J. Ryan exhibited this behavior during English arts and other classes, including Mandarin and PE, according to his special education plan that he shared with the Associated Press. He liked to participate in math class, where he felt more confident.
Joseph changed her work schedule at a night shift casino so she could talk to teachers during the day. The calls continued into fourth grade. But Joseph said teachers never talked about his reading difficulties.
Last spring, she sought treatment for what became clear: her son was depressed. She worked at the hospital with the parent lawyer who speaks English and Haitian Creole.
The advocate, Fabienne Eliacin, pushed to get J. Ryan’s scores from the tests given each fall to track student learning. She explained to Joseph what it meant to score in the 30th percentile. It’s not good, Eliacin told her. He can do better.
Joseph suddenly understood why J. Ryan behaved the way he did during English class. But why, she wondered, were his teachers only focused on her son’s behavior if his difficulty in reading caused his distress?
“They don’t really care how much they learn, as long as they keep quiet,” Joseph concluded.
Boston Public School officials declined to comment on J. Ryan’s case.
“We are committed to providing families with comprehensive and up-to-date information about their students’ academic performance,” said district spokesman Marcus O’Mard.
Before this year, it was up to Boston schools to share mid-term evaluations with parents, but it’s not clear how many did. In the fall, Boston launched a communications campaign to help teachers explain test results to parents as many as three times a year.
J. Ryan’s former teachers did not respond to emails asking for comment.
There are many reasons why teachers don’t talk to parents about a student’s academic progress, especially when the news is bad, research shows.
“Historically, teachers didn’t get much training to talk to parents,” says Tyler Smith, a professor of school psychology at the University of Missouri. School leadership and teacher support also make a difference, he said.
This is consistent with findings from national teacher surveys conducted by Learning Heroes. Williams said teachers also sometimes “make assumptions” that some low-income parents don’t care or shouldn’t be burdened, or that parents won’t believe them.
Without these conversations, parents had to rely on report cards. But report cards are notoriously subjective, reflecting how much effort students show in class and whether they turn in homework.
The progress report for Tamela Ensrud’s second-grade son in Nashville shows mostly A’s and a B in English, but she noticed her son was having trouble reading. She asked to discuss her son’s reading test scores at a parent-teacher conference in the fall, only to be shown samples of her son’s work and said, “Your son is doing great.”
Her son’s after-school program, which is run by a non-profit organization, tested his reading and math skills this fall and found that he was reading below the level of his class. He qualified for their reading intervention program.
“I don’t think the whole story is being told,” Ensrud said.
Metro Nashville Public Schools said it is posting students’ test scores online for parents to see.
“As far as we know, she has not shared any of these concerns with the school board, and if she had, they would be able to share information about these sources,” spokesman Sean Braisted said.
Ensrud reviewed the scores online and found them impossible to interpret.
Many districts have poured their federal pandemic recovery money into summer school offerings, tutoring programs and other interventions to help students regain ground lost during the pandemic. But acceptance was not what educators had hoped. If more parents knew their children were academically behind, they might seek help.
When Joseph and her attorney learned that J. Ryan was so far behind in reading, they asked his school for small group tutoring, an intervention experts say is one of the most effective strategies for struggling students.
But they were told that the school did not offer it. They moved him to a school in November that said they could provide this help. J. Ryan says he likes the new school because they teach more advanced long division.
“I like challenging math,” he said. But he doesn’t understand the texts he reads much better.
Joseph receives no calls from the teacher complaining about his behavior, which she attributes to her son being adequately treated for his depression. But she hasn’t received a report this year or the test scores the district says it is now sending to families.
“I’m still worried about his reading,” she said.