Educators have long known that parental support can help students improve their school performance, but a new study suggests that even a small nudge from teachers to parents — with specific guidance on where their children need improvement — can play a big role in preventing academic failure.
Researchers at Harvard and Brown University said children in a summer program were 41 percent less likely to fail courses when their parents received weekly one-sentence messages about their children’s performance by phone, text message, or e-mail.
“This is a very light touch, easy way to increase the success of students in these programs,” said Todd Rogers, director of Harvard’s Student Social Support R&D Lab, who coauthored the study with Matthew A. Kraft of Brown University.
In the study, set for publication in the August issue of the academic journal Economics of Education Review, students at an unidentified urban school district who were taking summer classes to earn credit in courses they had previously failed were randomly divided into three groups.
Parents of the students received messages from teachers about what their children did well, messages about areas where their children need to improve, or no messages.
While 84.2 percent of students whose parents received no messages completed the courses and earned credit, 90.7 percent of students whose parents received messages earned credit.
The improvement appears to be related to more effective conversations between parents and students rather than more frequent interaction, and included improved attendance, according to the study.
Because the summer courses can help students catch up after they have fallen behind, they “are an important part of the path to graduation,” Rogers said.
The researchers also found that notes on how students could improve were more effective than notes lauding their successes, though the difference was within the margin of error.
Rogers said it is likely, though not proved, that parents and students were more able to take action based on constructive criticism than they were on messages of praise.
“Sometimes ‘negative’ or ‘needs improvement’ information is specific and actionable,” Rogers said. “I think our positive statements tend to be more general and less specific.”
Rogers said the study’s most important lesson may be that teachers can use technology to quickly give parents guidance, at little cost, and make a big impact in student success.
“Our specific recommendation is that empowering and mobilizing families to help students outside school is insanely cost effective,” he said.
Rogers said the current study is part of the Student Social Support R&D Lab’s “research into low-cost strategies to engage students and families.”
Charles Glenn, a professor of education at Boston University, said the study’s “results are by no means surprising.” He said parental involvement is a huge benefit to students, but too often schools invite parents in for conferences with teachers twice a year and otherwise shut them out from conversations about their children’s educations.
“The prevailing force in education is to give lip service to parents but in fact to keep parents very much at the margin,” Glenn said.
Rogers said educators often make the “completely reasonable assumption that if we are focusing on student achievement, we should focus on students.”
But because students spend only a quarter of their waking hours in schools, Rogers said, it is important to make the most of time spent elsewhere.