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To Make Summer School More Successful, Communicate With Parents

Many thanks to Emily Bloomenthal, Todd Rogers, and Matthew A. Kraft for this guest post. Emily Bloomenthal is Senior Research Fellow in the Student Social Support R&D Lab at Harvard Kennedy School. Todd Rogers is Associate Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Student Social Support R&D Lab at Harvard Kennedy School. Matthew A. Kraft is Assistant Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University.

As graduating students don their caps and gowns, teachers pack up their classrooms, and families finalize their summer plans, many school districts are gearing up for summer school.

Researchers have found that much of the income achievement gap in the United States is attributable not to what happens during the school year, but to the summer months when most students are not in school. Wealthy families take advantage of the vacation to travel, send their children to enrichment camps, or engage in other activities that continue to boost learning. Students from less-advantaged backgrounds, on the other hand, are less likely to have access to these sorts of experiences over the summer, and tend to lose some of the academic gains that they made during the prior school year.

Increasing the summer opportunities available to students from low-income families is a crucial step in reducing the achievement gap. Summer school can be an important piece of this puzzle, particularly for students who need to make up credits that they were not able to earn during the school year. As long as school districts are offering summer school, they may as well make it as effective as possible. Our research shows that engaging families during these summer programs will make them even more effective. Many school districts that prioritize family engagement during the school year do not invest in reaching out to families during summer school, particularly given the short time-frame and the limited number of students served. However, we have found that empowering families to better support their students' summer school education makes a big difference for student outcomes and can be very cost-effective.

We developed a simple intervention in which parents of summer school students were sent personalized, one-sentence-long messages each week about their child's progress. We tested this parent communications strategy with a randomized controlled trial in a summer credit-recovery program for high school students in a large urban district. About a third of parents were assigned to receive positive personalized messages, which focused on what the child was doing well and encouraged them to keep up the good work (i.e. "John was an active participant in class all through this week - great job!"). About a third were assigned to receive messages that focused on specific things the child could do to improve (i.e. "Tina missed two homework assignments this week - I know she can do better."). Finally, a third of families were assigned to the control group, which meant that they were sent no additional messages above and beyond what was already planned. Because of the short duration of the summer school program, the treatment consisted of only four messages total - but those four sentences mattered. Facilitating this communication from teachers to parents decreased the percentage of students who failed to earn course credit from 15.8% to 9.3% - a 41% reduction. Moreover, this is a very affordable strategy for improving student achievement. Factoring in teacher time, these communications still cost about one-tenth of the amount the partner district typically spent per credit earned.

This project also provided insight into how schools can most effectively empower parents. Though our study is too small for us to be able to conclusively distinguish between the different types of message content, it suggested that the "improvement" messages had a greater impact than the "positive" messages. This may be because, as we found when we analyzed the message content, the improvement-oriented messages were far more likely to be actionable, specific, and refer to out-of-class issues that parents could directly address, such as missing homework assignments and absenteeism. In other words, we see that when parents are given specific guidance about how to help their student improve, they take advantage of it to better support their child's education, and it improves student academic success.

In addition to the benefits of this intervention for summer school students, summer school presents an opportunity for schools to experiment with new methods for engaging parents that can then be extended into the regular school year. The smaller student body, brief duration, and flexibilities in mandates regarding summer school give educators an opportunity to figure out the logistics of implementing a parent communication program, work out kinks, and develop standards and protocols in preparation for launching it on a larger scale and longer-term.

Plus, parental communications may present a means to prevent summer learning loss even among students who are not attending summer school. For example, we found that a summer text-messaging program for parents focused on promoting literacy skills increased reading comprehension among upper elementary students and attendance at parent-teacher conferences.

Whether during the summer or the school year, the research we described here and a growing body of other research by us and others is clear - engaging parents with actionable timely information leads to better outcomes for students while providing schools with impressive bang for their buck.

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