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Parental Involvement: Key to Boosting Student Performance

Could the secret to boosting student performance be as easy as sending a text message?

Not quite, but new research suggests that better-informing parents about their students’ performance in school could actually help improve it.

As Tara Garcia Mathewson writes for the Hechinger Report, studies out of two venerable higher-ed institutions—Harvard University and Columbia University—show schools can do a lot more to make sure parents understand exactly how their children are doing in school and what they can do to support their success.

“Parents get so little information and so little of what they get is useful,” Todd Rogers, director of Harvard’s Student Social Support R&D Lab, tells the Hechinger Report.

So, what can schools do to keep parents informed and engaged in their students’ progress? Here’s three takeaways from the latest educational research.

1. Directly informing parents can help reduce chronic absenteeism

In two separate experiments, Todd Rogers and his team at Harvard were able to prove that informing parents about their child’s school absences helped reduce chronic absenteeism. Chronic absenteeism in one California district dropped by 15 percent, while Philadelphia public schools saw a 10 percent drop in absenteeism, after the Harvard team sent home mailers that explained the number of times a child missed school and compared that to the attendance records of other students.

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Rogers’ approach was inspired by an earlier discovery that parents of chronically absent students tended to underestimate both the amount of days their children had been out of school and how that record compared with classmates.

Something as simple as making sure parents are actually aware of their child’s absences had an obvious effect, Rogers and his colleagues said, pointing out that such an approach is relatively cost effective and easy to replicate. Plus, he said, the use of physical mailers gives parents ‘artifacts’ that can be used as reminders for both parents and students.

2. Text messaging helps keep students on track

At Columbia University, economics and education professor Peter Bergman sought to meet parents where they are by exploring the use of regular text messages to inform parents about a child’s classwork.

A study conducted by Bergman’s team in West Virginia texted parents when their children missed class or an assignment, or when their GPA fell below 70 percent. The goal was to keep parents in the loop using efficient, cost-effective technology.

And it worked.

After the text messaging campaign was implemented, course failures were cut by 40 percent and attendance improved by 17 percent.

3. Just because information is available, doesn’t mean parents are seeing it

Both Bergman’s and Rogers’ research underscore the efficacy of simple, cost-effective strategies for ensuring that parents stay on top of their children’s academic performance. But a study the two conducted together in public schools in Washington, D.C. further emphasizes just how vital it is to make this type of information easily accessible to parents.

When provided an online portal to opt in to text messaging updates about their children, few parents chose to enroll. However, when parents were automatically enrolled, nearly all of them—96 percent—remained in the program throughout the school year.

Again, keeping parents informed paid off for students. The researchers found that students whose parents were part of the texting program failed 10 percent fewer classes than students whose parents did not receive text alerts.

This and other studies Bergman and his team conducted show that even when information is made available to parents, it doesn’t mean they are actually viewing that information—especially when presented with the added step of enrolling in a program or logging in.

Unfortunately, it’s often the parents of the most at-risk students—minorities and poor students, especially—who are the least likely to access tools, such as online gradebooks or enroll in messaging systems, Bergman tells the Hechinger Report. If you fail to integrate these solutions effectively, they could actually increase the achievement gap in schools.

“If you just place information online,” Bergman says, “it’s possible that you increase disparities along some of the socioeconomic lines we care about closing.”

How does your school or district make important information easily accessible to parents? How might this latest research inform your approach? Tell us in the comments.