In theory, parental engagement and support should play an important role in determining how well children do in education. That investment may be financial (eg, paying for tutoring) but it may also include time spent researching school choices, or promoting positive outcomes (eg, through helping out with homework).
Yet parents often lack the skills and information necessary to help their children. For example, they may not be able to assist with homework as their children get older and it becomes more complex. They may also be ill-informed about their children’s performance and, therefore, unaware of the support they need.
If so, we may expect that interventions seeking to increase parents’ skills and give them the information they need should have positive effects on pupil outcomes.
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In a new paper, published in the Economics of Education Review and featured in the January edition of the Centre for Education Economics’ Monthly Research Digest, Peter Bergman, Chana Edmond-Verley, and Nicole Notario-Risk report the results from a one-year randomised-controlled trial, designed to assess whether one such intervention would have a positive effect.
The trial tested whether text messages and home visits could decrease information problems and improve parents’ skills in ways that improved pupil outcomes.
In total, 1,120 families with children attending a low-performing middle school, or one of two low-performing upper-secondary schools in an anonymous low-income, urban school district in the American Midwest, were randomly assigned to one of two interventions or a control group.
In one intervention, parents received text messages with detailed information about their children’s academic performance twice a month.
In the second intervention, in addition to these text messages, parents were also visited at home and were shown how to use school resources to track pupil progress. They were also helped to understand graduation requirements and university-readiness, and taught how to improve the home learning environment.
Parents in the control group received neither text messages nor home visits.
Both treatments were delivered by members of community-based organisations, who were trained by the researchers to interpret pupil data, transmit that data in text messages to parent – and via phone calls or emails – and to carry out home visits.
Unsurprisingly the text messages were most straightforward to deliver, and essentially all parents who were supposed to receive text messages did.
By contrast, owing to scheduling difficulties, only just over 50 per cent of parents who were supposed to have home visits received one (or more).
Nevertheless, both treatments had large positive effects on the probability that pupils remained in the school district rather than moving to another district or dropping out – by about 40 per cent compared with the control group – in the spring term in the school year during which the interventions were carried out.
As pupils who leave the district are lower-performing relatively speaking, the results suggest the interventions helped to retain some of the most at-risk pupils.
The interventions had no impact, however, on absences or suspensions. Also, the effect on district retention from one school year to the next was smaller and only statistically significant in the text-message intervention.
But did the interventions affect pupil achievement?
Yes, they did. The text messages increased pupils’ overall grade average by approximately the equivalent of 13 points in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey – in which 30 points roughly correspond to the progress made in one school year – compared with the control group. The text-message plus home-visit intervention raised the average by the equivalent of 8 Pisa points.
At the same time, only the text-message plus home-visit intervention had effects on standardised test scores in reading and maths, raising pupil achievement by the equivalent of 12-13 Pisa points.
But remember that only 50 per cent of families who were supposed to receive home visits actually did so: for those that did actually receive at least one home visit, the effect size amounts to 26 Pisa points in maths and 19 Pisa points in reading.
Lessons for schools?
Overall, therefore, the interventions appear to have been successful, although in different ways. The per-pupil revenue increase for the district as a result of increasing pupil retention outweighed the total cost of the programme by a considerable margin. And, combined with the learning gains, the authors find that the interventions pass a cost-benefit test, suggesting that similar information interventions may be worth investing in.
This should not be undertaken naively though: it is difficult to extrapolate these findings to other contexts, especially more advantaged settings.
Importantly, it’s also not clear whether home visits by themselves would pass a cost-benefit test. The main benefit of this additional element appears to be the larger positive effects on standardised tests, whereas the effects on grade average and pupil retention appear slightly larger in the text message-only treatment.
There is research to suggest that grade averages are more important than test scores for pupils’ long-term outcomes. These issues should be investigated further in future research.
Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren is lead economist at the Centre for Education Economics (CfEE) and editor of its Monthly Research Digest. This blog is based on his editor’s selection for the January issue of the digest, published today. You can subscribe to receive a copy of the digest free of charge here.
The CfEE is an independent thinktank working to improve policy and practice in education through impartial economic research.