The benefit of a pupil report card discussed at a one-on-one parent meeting is well understood in rich countries. But such meetings are far from the norm in most developing countries, and have been little researched.
In this context, a new paper by Asad Islam – published in the European Economic Review (volume 111) and featured in this month’s Centre for Education Economics (CfEE) Monthly Research Digest – represents an important advance.
Islam reports on a new randomised experiment in rural Bangladeshi schools designed to test the impact of parent–teacher meetings.
In rural Bangladesh, parents generally have little contact with teachers, and little understanding of what happens at school. They may lack the confidence to approach teachers, which can be mistaken by teachers for a lack of interest or ability to help with their children’s learning.
Quick read: Do we hide the truth about primary behaviour from parents?
Quick listen: What you need to know about the problems with ‘school readiness’
Want to know more? Schools and parents: a perfect partnership?
Since children typically make their own way to school, there isn’t the opportunity for parents to have the informal chats before or after school that commonly happen in other contexts.
To address this problem, Islam worked with a local NGO and the government to develop a programme of monthly face-to-face meetings between teachers and parents, over two academic years. At each meeting, the teacher provided parents with a report card and discussed their child’s academic progress.
To encourage participation, teachers in both treatment and control schools received a bonus of $25 (15-20% of average salaries). Programme staff gave guidance to teachers to encourage parents to spend more time assisting their children and monitoring their school work.
In the end, 76 schools were randomised into either the treatment group (40 schools) or control group (36 schools), covering over 6,000 pupils in Years 3-5. There were five meetings in the first year and eight meetings in the second year.
In the first year, 90 per cent of parents attended at least one meeting, and 95 percent in the second year. On average, parents attended more than half of the meetings.
The effects of the intervention were large: it roughly doubled the amount that children learnt in each of the two years. Among pupils in Years 4 and 5, the impact is consistent across all subjects, including mathematics, English, and science. (For pupils in Year 3, the effects are only apparent in English and science, which is likely because parents of these children attended fewer meetings with the teachers.)
While treatment effects are larger among high-ability pupils than among low- and average-ability pupils in the first year, effects are similar across ability levels after two years. Overall, therefore, it appears as if the intervention improved efficiency without necessarily decreasing equity.
Islam investigates whether the improvement came via changes in teaching, parent support, or the pupils themselves working harder, and finds some support for all three mechanisms.
Teachers were more likely to use visual aids and real-world examples to teach concepts, and less likely to just stick to the textbook. Parents and siblings were more likely to help pupils with schoolwork at home, and pupils were more likely to receive private tutoring.
There were also positive effects on motivation: pupils spent more time studying, felt more confident about exams, and had higher ambitions.
Do parent-teacher meetings really work?
One possible explanation that the paper doesn't test is that the intervention simply forced teachers to pay attention to every child. Research elsewhere has shown that single-class teachers perform better than multiple subject specialists at primary level – and having the same class teacher for two years in a row is even more positive for achievement.
Teachers in developing countries typically have large classes and pupils with extremely variable ability, making personalised feedback and instruction incredibly challenging. More fundamentally, in many countries, there is an underlying belief that education is for selecting the brightest, not for ensuring that even the weakest make progress.
Making teachers sit down each month with parents to discuss how each child is doing is simply likely to force them to pay closer attention to all of their pupils.
Overall, there is no doubt that the intervention was incredibly cost-effective. Indeed, the programme cost a total of $300 for each school, which comes to about $1.58 per pupil over two years. At such low cost, in combination with large learning gains, this may be one of the most cost-effective interventions ever studied.
Of course, interventions usually work better when implemented on a small scale by an NGO with skilled staff and with researchers closely involved in the design – as was the case in this intervention. And government programmes at scale often fail to replicate the same effects. But close attention to the design of this intervention would a good place to start for any government looking to buck that trend.
Lee Crawfurd is a Fellow of the Centre for Education Economics (CfEE) and Deputy-editor of its new Monthly Research Digest. This blog is based on his selection for the February issue of the digest. You can view, download and subscribe to receive it a free of charge here
CfEE is an independent think tank working to improve policy and practice in education through impartial economic research