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Make One Change to Parent Outreach, and Study Finds Fewer Students Fail Classes

Washington, D.C.

School and district leaders may be overlooking small tweaks in their outreach that can yield huge increases in parent engagement.

So-called "nudging" interventions—which try to use small, low-cost changes to change people's habits—showed promise in several studies previewed at the annual research conference for the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management here last week. 

Click for more coverage of parent engagement in schools.

One such intervention—alerting parents by text message when their children are frequently absent or in danger of failing a grade—has shown somewhat lackluster results in practice, according to researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University and Harvard University. But changing how parents enroll in the program dramatically improves its effectiveness.

Across nearly 7,000 parents in a dozen Washington, D.C. middle and high schools, the researchers found nearly all administrators asked parents to go to a website to sign up for text alerts—which less than half of 1 percent did. Sending parents a direct text with a link to the sign-up helped a little, but not much: 11 percent signed up.

But when researchers flipped the script, asking parents to opt out of the service rather than opting in, more than 95 percent stayed in the program and received alert texts if their child received a 70 percent or lower on a test. 

By the end of the year, the researchers found students of parents who had been automatically enrolled in the texting program had raised their grade point averages by a third of a letter grade, and overall course failure fell by 25 percent. 

At the end of the year, the parents who had been opted into the text service also were more likely to report wanting to receive more information about their children's schooling in the following year.

"Parents don't know what they don't know; if you give them actionable information, they act on it," said co-author Todd Rogers of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

School administrators needed better information, too. The researchers found that administrators thought that opting parents into the program would lead to a 27 percentage point better participation rate, but parent engagement actually increased by more than 94 percentage points. 

"If anything, it appears it increases parents' demand for information," Rogers said.

Administrators may balk at the thought of enrolling parents in a program automatically rather than asking them to affirmatively enroll, noted Lisa Gennetian, who was not part of the study but who also studies nudge interventions at New York University. "We are a country that embraces choice, and I think things like opt-out flies a little in the face of this idea of choice," she said. 

But the concept of opting parents into needed education information is not new, Rogers said: "Parents don't get the choice to receive report cards." 

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