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Texting parents about tests and homework can improve maths results and reduce absenteeism


July 15, 2016 Raj Chande

Today the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) published the results of a trial showing that texting parents information about upcoming tests and homework directly improved their child’s attainment in maths by the equivalent of an extra month in the classroom. I ran the trial as part of my PhD, with Harvard Kennedy School’s Todd Rogers and Bristol University’s Simon Burgess, whilst also working at BIT.

The importance of parent engagement for a child’s education is one of the few areas of consensus in the sector. Schools, policy makers, parents and even teenage children all agree that parents have an important role to play in supporting the learning that goes on at school (Becta, 2010). However, not all parents are as engaged as others. These differences don’t simply reflect differences in parental motivation – all parents want to help their children succeed. Instead, Hoover-Dempsey (1997, 2005) suggests that some parents face behavioural barriers that stop them becoming as involved as they would like to be. For a parent to have the confidence to engage with their child’s schooling, they must know what to do, when to do it, believe they have the ability to help and also feel that the school would like them to be involved. These conditions may not always be met, even for the most motivated parents.

Parents who want to support their child’s learning face a further set of barriers when their child enters secondary school (Harris and Goodall, 2008). In primary school, the curriculum is relatively accessible even for parents who struggled at school themselves; and parents will often also share information with their peers and their child’s teacher at the school gates. In secondary school, however, children are learning increasingly complicated material, which makes it harder for parents to help with homework. Secondary school pupils are more likely to travel to school independently as their parents return to full time work, reducing opportunities for informal interactions with teachers and other parents. Without these interactions, parents are likely to be less certain of what they should be doing to support their child’s learning, when they should do it, whether they have the ability to help – and even, in extreme cases, whether the school even wants them to be involved.

With this context in mind, we tested the impact of texting parents simple but timely information on their child’s maths, English and science classes. In a trial involving 16,000 students across 36 English secondary schools, a random selection of pupils’ parents were texted:

  • Notifications of upcoming tests and a request that they encourage the child to study
  • Conversation prompts related to the day’s learning
  • Notifications of missing homework and a request that they encourage the child to catch up

The intervention improved maths results by the equivalent of an extra month in the classroom and also had a small positive effect on attendance. No statistically significant effects were found for English and science.

Todd, Simon and I are delighted that the intervention improved maths attainment and we think this is just the tip of the iceberg for what can be achieved with this kind of approach.

Text messages are cheap: our intervention cost about £5 per pupil per year (approximately 0.1% of the annual spend per pupil). Text messages have an advantage over other forms of communication, in that people tend to read them almost instantly (unlike emails) and that the vast majority of schools already have the required software in place.

Another advantage of our light touch texting approach is that parents didn’t have to take any proactive steps to receive the information – the texts were simply sent directly to their phones. Our intervention was designed to make life that little bit easier for parents, giving them the information they need to support their child’s learning without having to visit the school, search online portals or seek the information out from their children when they got home from school.

Today EEF also reported the results from trials of two other parent engagement trials, which required parents to attend classes on how to support their child’s learning. There is clear evidence that this approach has substantial potential, based on previous studies, but both trials struggled to persuade parents to attend.

BIT, Harvard Kennedy School and Bristol University are now talking to EEF to identify how we can help all schools implement such an approach in the future. We hope to continue testing the impact of sending text messages to parents in future trials.

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