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Parent Alert! Your Child Just Skipped Class

LA Johnson

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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    Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
    Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.