Parent Alert! Your Child Just Skipped Class

Mar 2, 2017
Originally published on March 8, 2017 11:30 am

My bank sends me a text alert when my account balance is low. My wireless company sends me a text alert when I'm about to use up my monthly data. Somebody — I guess the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration? --sends me a text alert when it's going to rain a whole lot.

A few clever researchers said: "Hey! What if we could send text alerts to parents when students miss class or don't turn in their homework?" And what do you know, it worked.

Take it away, Peter Bergman and Eric W. Chan of Teachers College, Columbia University:

"In a field experiment across 22 middle and high schools, we [sent] automated text-message alerts to parents about their child's missed assignments, grades and class absences. The intervention reduces course failures by 39% and increases class attendance by 17%."

That's from a draft paper they've just released. They say the intervention was especially helpful for students who were struggling academically. The students' GPAs improved by a quarter of a point on a four-point scale. And students were more likely to stay in school.

Bergman told NPR Ed that he has been researching the power of texting parents for about six years. In a previous study in Los Angeles, he tapped out the texts by hand.

This time, working with the largest school district in West Virginia, they built software that communicated directly with the electronic gradebook that teachers were already using, and they used the phone numbers parents provided on class lists. The result was automated messages like this one:

  • Parent alert: Jaden has 5 missing assignments in science class. For more information log online.

What's really interesting is that, for the most part, parents didn't follow up by logging online. Studies across hundreds of schools with online portals show that very few ever do.

Simply sending updates to parents' pockets, though, seemed to make all the difference. They contacted the school more often. And presumably, they talked to their kids.

Bergman says that, when asked, parents who got the text messages showed a more realistic, less optimistic view of their children's school performance.

Lots of research supports the idea that students succeed when parents get involved. But most policymakers treat parental involvement as something that's determined largely by factors that are tough to budge, like family income and education. This study suggests that parents may just need a little help.

"If my Internet goes down, I can call any time, day or night," says Bergman, who must have a better Internet provider than I do.

"If I want to figure out whether my child's missing any assignments, by 8 or 9 p.m. when I get home from work, good luck," Bergman adds. "The school is shut."

Report cards come out quarterly. Children and teens may shade the truth. But timely text reports from teachers can apparently prompt better behavior. And all for a fraction of a cent per message.

Bergman hastens to underline that text messages are no panacea: "I think this is one piece of a larger puzzle." For one thing, the significant results came almost entirely from the high school students in the study, not the middle-schoolers.

Still, interest in the general area of "nudging" better behavior is growing. NPR Ed previously covered trials using text messages and emails that prompt college students to sign up for financial aid and reduce dropouts among adult-education students.

Justin Reich, who studies education technology at MIT, says this direction of research looking for simple, cheap interventions is welcome. "I think there is a serious problem in ed-tech funding, which is that there's too much interest in things that look sexy, that are on the horizon, and are untested and unproven," he says. "If we can adopt a technology that is almost universally accessible to parents, it has positive outcomes on their kid, and it doesn't cost very much, that seems like a positive thing to me."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Most schools consider cell phones a nuisance. No one is learning algebra when they are texting. New research, though, suggests that when it is the school reaching out, texting can have a powerful effect on struggling students. Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team explains.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: The study focused on 22 middle and high schools in West Virginia's largest district. As part of a randomized trial, parents received a few simple automated text messages each week. For example, on Mondays, they got a note about class work, like this.

PETER BERGMAN: Parent alert - Cory has five missing assignments in science class. For more information, log online.

TURNER: That's researcher Peter Bergman, an assistant professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. If students were behind in more than one class, parents got more than one text. Each week, there was also a message telling parents if their child had been counted absent. And once a month, they were told if their child's grade had dropped below 70 percent in any class.

BERGMAN: Parent alert - Cory has a 65 percent average in math class. For more information, log online.

TURNER: Before we get to how well these messages worked, it's important to explain how they worked. The district used an online learning management system, like an electronic grade book, to keep track of all of this student data. Parents could access it, too. The problem, Bergman says, is that most didn't.

BERGMAN: Twenty-seven percent of parents have ever logged into the system to look at their child's grades.

TURNER: Bergman has spent years studying parent involvement in schools, and he says this is a common problem. As a result, parents often overestimate how their child is doing in school.

BERGMAN: Parents tend to be really preoccupied, really busy. And it's very important to make it as easy as possible for them to get involved in their child's education.

TURNER: In this study, that meant sending automated text messages to keep parents informed. As for the results...

BERGMAN: On average, in the study, students received about one F, and we cut that by 40 percent.

TURNER: In other words, a lot of Fs turned into Cs. Students also attended roughly 50 more class periods. As for parents, texting made them more likely to contact the school, to withhold the child's privileges at home, and it made their perceptions of how their kids were doing more accurate. It's important to note these effects were largely limited to high schoolers. Bergman says texting parents of middle schoolers didn't make much difference - not sure why. Also, while grades and attendance improved, standardized test scores did not. As for the price tag...

BERGMAN: It's pretty cheap.

TURNER: Seven to $10 per student per year - and that's if a district starts from scratch. The text messages themselves cost a fraction of a cent apiece since no one has to write them. Bergman's working paper is just the latest to show the potential upside of texting.

LINDSAY PAGE: So students were much more likely to file the FAFSA earlier.

TURNER: Lindsay Page is a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. She found that texting high school seniors, nudging them to fill out their college financial aid forms, had a big impact on how early they filed. Not only that...

PAGE: ...But it also converted to higher rates of college enrollment.

TURNER: So what is it about texting that seems to work?

PAGE: You know, (laughter) maybe this sounds simple, but if we want to be communicating well with students, we should communicate through the channels that they use.

TURNER: The same goes for parents, especially low income families that may not have regular access to a computer or a smartphone, but almost certainly have a basic cell phone. The other big takeaway for Page is the burden on schools.

PAGE: For anything to happen in the world, somebody has to do it.

TURNER: The promise of texting she says - and Bergman agrees - is that once the system's in place, those messages can be automatic. No one has to write them. They aren't the only answer for schools, researchers say, but they encourage parents and students to ask questions and to seek out the teachers and counselors who do the real work. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ST. PAUL AND THE BROKEN BONES SONG, "DON'T MEAN A THING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.