Parent Alert! Your
Child Just Skipped Class
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
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,
"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
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."