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Home » The One Question To Ask About Your Child’s Grades: Cindi Williams (Transcript)

The One Question To Ask About Your Child’s Grades: Cindi Williams (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Cindi Williams’ talk titled “The One Question To Ask About Your Child’s Grades” at TEDxBellevueWomen conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


So, I’m that person, the person you don’t want to sit next to at a dinner party. I cannot tell you how many times my husband’s given me “the look” as I am talking on and on about a new piece of research we’re fielding on something like educational inequity in America. Apparently, it can be a bit of a buzzkill on a Saturday night, but this is a weekday.

And I am so excited and such a privilege to be here and tell you about an issue that’s near and dear to my heart, which is ensuring that all of our kids can learn and that all of our kids are set up for success in life.

The Power of One Question

So, what if I told you that if we asked one single question, that if every parent, grandparent, and guardian asked one question, we could profoundly change public education? “Is my child on grade level in reading and in math?” So, let me explain.

About a decade ago, a dear colleague and I started a non-profit focused on education and specifically focused on parents called Learning Heroes. We were about halfway through our careers, we were knee-deep in policy, and time and again, we’d come out of a meeting and realize that parents had been completely dismissed, unrecognized as a part of the solution to anything we were discussing.

Listening to Parents

At the same time, she and I were raising our boys in the public school system. And we were frustrated, even though we did this work for a living, we didn’t know how our kids were doing, which felt crazy.

So, the first thing we did with this non-profit is we just decided to engage in a giant piece of research. My former boss, the Secretary of Education, used to say, “In God we trust, all others bring data.” And we wanted data. But we wanted to ask the kinds of questions you don’t usually hear in a piece of research.

Things like, “What keeps you up at night?” “What are your hopes and your dreams for your child?” “How confident are you that they’re going to get there?” “How engaged are you in your school? What does that look like?” We talked to thousands of parents across pretty much every demographic. We did focus groups in English and in Spanish, and we met with black families and Hispanic families separately because we wanted to create a safe place where they could come together and talk about things that were hard, like bias, and lower expectations, and unfair disciplinary practices. Things that our black and brown families have told us are really unique to their experience.

Shocking Discoveries

And so we pulled all this research together, and we learned something so shocking and so hard to believe that we actually turned around and did the same piece of research the following year. So, I’m going to tell you what we learned. Are you ready?

90% of all parents in the U.S. think their students are at or above grade level. 90%. Seriously. 9 in 10 in America think their kids are okay academically. So, let’s think about that. As you guys know, the headlines, they tell a completely different story.

Our nation is experiencing unprecedented declines in reading and in math skills. If you look at our National Assessment of Educational Progress, you’ll see that only 29% of our students are proficient in reading and only 26% in math. And if you look at these statewide tests, which many of you guys are familiar with and have probably been annoyed by, in our state, it’s called the STAR. They take them in the spring. They get the results in the summer.

And if you look, say, at the District of Columbia, so in the District of Columbia, 10% of 8th grade students are proficient in math. 84% of parents think they are. That 10% number is real. And it feels crazy that parents don’t know. They deserve to know.

Lastly, there’s the Center for Education Policy Research. They’ve been tracking learning loss across the country during the pandemic. And what they’ve been surfacing is real inequity. Because what they’re finding is that districts and schools that are just two miles apart can have almost a year’s difference in learning. So no matter the measure, whether it’s federal or state or district, the data is really clear.

The Misleading Indicator

So here’s my headline: My headline is that the students in the United States of America are not on track and that parents have no idea. So, you’re probably saying, “How is this possible?” Well, it’s because parents believe report cards. They’re the holy grail of parent information. They’re the primary thing we look at. And for some, they’re the only thing they have access to.

So here’s what we know from the research: 80% of all parents say their child is receiving Bs or better. 80%. But here’s the big reveal: Grades do not equal grade level. Let me say it one more time: Grades do not equal grade level.

Grades represent a lot of important things: homework, participation, behavior. Whether or not you showed up for class. And the mastery of the things we actually need kids to learn and understand. When you bundle all that stuff together, it’s really hard to unpack those things that you really need kids to know and do. So, how do we unpack the B? Well, in our work, we get to meet a lot of amazing parents.

A Story of Success

And one of those parents is named Charita. She recently talked to us about her daughter, Christiana. So, they recently switched schools. And in the switching of schools, their daughter received a diagnostic from her new teacher that told her that her child was two years behind in reading. So, Charita’s third grader was reading like a first grader. Happens all the time. But Charita, she did what moms do, right? She’s a problem solver. She’s on it. She goes to Amazon, gets her hooks on phonics, because that’s how she learned how to read.

She starts blocking out time after work so she can read with her daughter at home. She partners with her teacher. And her teacher starts giving her more instructional time at school. And together, they caught Christiana completely up. But Christiana is so fortunate that a change in location prompted a conversation with her teacher and her mom. So many parents are left in the dark with no opportunity to step in. And we see these parents all the time. What makes it so tragic is they actually can blame themselves.

The Hidden Problem

So, as long as most of America is getting Bs, we as parents, we’re missing a crucial early warning system. I don’t know about you guys, but if my son brings home a D or F, I’m on it. I mean, are you kidding? I am so spun up so fast. He is hiding in his room. And a C in my life can be pretty situational. If he’s really struggled to get that C, it actually might be okay. But a B completely lulls me into complacency. “He’s fine. With a B, I’m going to go figure out what to make for dinner. We’re good.”

So, parents cannot solve a problem they don’t know they have. So, how do we help parents be curious? Well, our research says it takes two contradictory pieces of information for you to rethink that thing you thought you knew. Two things. So, let’s play that out.

Your son has a shining B in reading. You are so proud. And then you find out from the teacher that your son’s been placed in one of the lower reading groups in their classroom. And then that statewide assessment comes back in the summer, and you see that your son is in the bottom quartile for ELA. With those two pieces of data, 60% of parents rethink that thing they thought they knew. So, armed with this information, we had a new call to action.

How could we take two pieces of information to communities across America and have parents be curious? Well, we started in six cities. We came alongside departments of education in those communities and nonprofits, and we carefully crafted a message in hopes that we wouldn’t shame or blame teachers or parents, but that we would pique their interest.

So, I’m going to show you some examples from that campaign. We had a lot of fun. So, we had billboards in Houston. We had transit shelters in D.C. And in New York, we had something called a spectacular. Because who doesn’t want a spectacular in their life? It was so fun. But if you can read the words on this spectacular, what it says is, “90% of the parents in New York City think their kids are on track in math. 26% are. Go beyond grades.” So, the great news is they did. 46% of the parents who could recall the “Go Beyond Grades” ad campaign took an action. And the number one action they took? Talking to their teacher. It worked. We were so excited.

The Challenge of Honest Conversations

So, you might ask, why is telling parents the truth so hard? Well, one, because it is hard. How many of us want to be told that our child is not meeting expectations. And you compound that with the fact that the majority of the teachers in this country are white, and it’s really hard to have these conversations across race.

But I think the biggest issue is that there’s no process in place. We don’t create the space for these meaningful conversations to happen. There’s no protocol. How many of you have been to a parent-teacher conference? Most of you. So, if you’re anything like me, they’re scheduled for 15 minutes. You get super anxious. It feels more like two. And you sit down and you look at a nice piece of art or a sweet note that’s on the table. Or, unfortunately, they mention a behavioral issue.

But you don’t walk away from that conversation most of the time with crucial academic data. It just doesn’t happen. So, there is one place in our public education system where there’s a process that we can look to that’s working.

A Model from Special Education

And that is how we address the needs of our special education students and our neurodiverse students. There, there’s a real process in place. Thanks to a federal law called IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It’s a mouthful. But what it does is annually it gives parents an opportunity to have a process. To sit down and to find out how their student’s doing.

So, my husband and I are the parents of two wonderful boys who are also wonderfully different. Our oldest, Joshua, was born with a chromosomal deletion. And we’ve known since birth that he was going to need a lot of extra help. Our youngest, Jake, is probably considered a typical learner, although I’m not so sure I believe in that.

And so with Joshua, because of IDEA, we had an IEP from probably pre-K. And that IEP told us that every year we got to have an annual meeting with our principal, our teachers, and our guidance counselors. And we looked at where he was against his grade level standards, which is usually far below. We put together some reachable goals for him. Then, we decided what are the supports he needs, what’s our plan, and we signed it. Sometimes there were 11 people in that meeting and it would go for 60 minutes. It’s pretty amazing.

With our youngest, he loves to learn. He is a good student. I had that one time in high school test that you take, your state test in the summer. But other than that, I didn’t really know. So, with our oldest, we were really good partners. We knew what we were working on, whether it was humming lesson class or multiplication tables.

Encouraging Parental Initiative

We were on it. And with Jake, no process, not so much. So, in the absence of a process, how do we help parents take the initiative? Well, we start by asking the question, “Is my child on grade level in reading and math?” Because teachers tell us that they know the answer. They say the number one way to know is to ask them. And one of the biggest accomplishments that we have seen over the last decade has been this sort of abundance of classroom-level data.

There are lots of names for it: MAP, i-Ready, DIBELS, Lexile Score. They’re all embedded in the classroom. But they give you real-time information during the course of the school year as to how your student’s doing. So, we as parents, we can ask for this data. We get to see it. We just have to ask: “What are the tests that have been given in my school and can I look at them?” And you and your teacher can partner around those areas where you see gaps. And you can do things like online resources and tutoring and extra instructional time and after-school programs. Once the parent knows, they can act.

Strengthening Partnerships

So, how do we strengthen the parent-teacher partnership? Well, I would argue it starts with coming to the conversation without assigning blame. We really have to come to these conversations with a spirit of collaboration. Our kids move from teacher to teacher, year to year. We are the contiguous link. We know when they’re missing a foundational skill and we know that that builds over time.

And if a student misses something like the ability to decode a word, or the ability to add or subtract fractions, that can have a lasting ripple effect. And it’s bigger than academics. It can attribute to their self-confidence, which, as a parent, is everything.

So, I would just say when they do miss one of these stackable skills, if it does go unnoticed, what happens is they feel less smart. And we know how capable they are. We also know they can’t stack something on nothing. So, we really have to go figure out what are those things that they’re missing and help them fill their gaps. As parents, we are juggling all the things all the time. And we’re doing the very best we can. And I would argue we probably can’t try harder, but we could work a lot smarter.

A New Perspective on Academic Concerns

We could be a lot more strategic about how our students spend their time and we could probably worry differently. So, right now, our research shows us that academics is at the bottom of the list of things that keep parents up at night. But when you tell them that their child’s not on grade level, it bumps right back up to the top.

So, what do we do? Well, you’ve heard it by now. We ask the question. We have an all hands-on deck moment in this country, and most parents have no idea they need to be on the boat. We have really good intentions. But our good intentions are not going to equal impact. The good news is we have a solvable problem. The answer to this question is knowable.

I think it’s time to unlock the potential of parents. We are a powerful group. But we need to be equipped with the right information. And we’re going to have to go beyond the grades. Thank you.


Cindi Williams’ talk, “The One Question To Ask About Your Child’s Grades,” emphasizes the critical gap between parents’ perceptions of their children’s academic performance and the reality of their grade-level proficiency. She highlights how 90% of U.S. parents believe their children are on or above grade level, while national assessments show a starkly different reality.

Williams discusses the challenges in fostering meaningful conversations between teachers and parents, particularly around the difficult truths of a child’s academic struggles. She points to the special education system, with its structured processes for parental involvement, as a model for engaging all parents in their children’s education. By advocating for parents to ask whether their child is on grade level in reading and math, Williams believes this can trigger essential discussions and interventions.

Her talk underlines the importance of access to real-time, classroom-level data for parents to accurately understand and support their children’s learning needs. Ultimately, Williams calls for a collaborative spirit between parents and teachers to ensure children receive the support they need to succeed academically.

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