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What If Teachers Regularly Communicated With Parents?

Note: This week Matthew Kraft, assistant professor of education at Brown University, joins us as guest-blogger. Follow him on Twitter at @MatthewAKraft.

I'm thrilled to take a break from my research this week to reflect on what we might do differently to substantially enhance the quality of teaching and learning in K-12 public schools.  In this series of "What if..." blog posts, I share my thoughts on some of the big questions I hope we all consider asking. 

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As a high school teacher, I communicated with parents pretty infrequently. When I did call home, it was typically because things were not going well. I might call if a student's behavior got out of hand, if a student was frequently absent, or if a student seemed disengaged or depressed. I remember making positive calls on occasion when students were putting forth their best efforts, but the lack of urgency around these calls often led me to focus on other more immediate demands on my time. I exchanged semi-frequent emails with a few parents who reached out to me, but I rarely initiated these email conversations.

Parent surveys suggest that this unsystematic approach to communicating with families may be typical. The best information on the frequency of communication between schools, teachers and parents comes from the nationally representative Parent and Family Involvement in Education survey. In the figure below, I plot trends in the frequency and quality of school-initiated communication with public school parents from 2003 to 2012.  The blue line represents the percent of parents who report ever receiving an e-mail or note about their student, the red line tracks phone calls home, and the green line captures the percent of parents who are "very satisfied" with their interactions with school staff. 

KraftGraph1.jpg

SOURCE: Author's calculations from the U.S. Department of Education's Parent and Family Involvement in Education Survey of the National Household Education Surveys Program (NHES: 2003, 2007, 2012). Data are restricted to parents with students attending assigned public schools and exclude public schools of choice.  *This question was not included in the 2002-2003 parent survey.

There are three main takeaways from the data presented in this figure. First, communication in any form between schools, teachers, and parents is surprisingly rare. For example, 59% of public school parents report NEVER receiving a phone call home in 2012. Second, there is considerable room for improvement in the quality of communication. About half of all parents are not "very satisfied" with their interactions with school staff. Third, overall trends across the last decade don't suggest schools are making major progress in improving the frequency and quality of communication with parents. Although the use of e-mail as a form of communication has increased steadily over the last decade, this increase has been largely concentrated among non-poor families. As shown in the figure below, the income-based "e-mail communication gap" between families above and below the poverty line has more than doubled over the last decade. 

KraftGraph2.jpg

SOURCE: Author's calculations from the U.S. Department of Education's Parent and Family Involvement in Education Survey of the National Household Education Surveys Program (NHES: 2003, 2007, 2012). Statistics represent the full sample of data including parents with students attending assigned and chosen public schools as well as religious and non-religious public schools. 

These statistics should sound alarm bells given growing causal evidence that communication can empower parents and improve students' academic performance. For example, a small randomized control trial Shaun Dougherty and I conducted during a charter school summer academy demonstrated that frequent phone calls home immediately increased students' engagement in school as measured by homework completion, in-class behavior, and in-class participation. In a related experiment, Todd Rogers and I found that sending parents weekly one-sentence individualized messages from teachers during a high-school summer credit recovery program increased the percentage of students who earned course credit by 6.5 percentage points.  A fascinating experimental study conducted in France found that inviting parents to attend three two-hour long meetings with school leaders to talk about how to support their students in the transition to middle school increased both parents' and students' engagement in school.  Parents who were randomly chosen to receive invitations to the meetings were more likely to join the parent association and monitor their child's school work, while their students' attendance, behavior, and performance in French class all increased.

I see three primary factors contributing to the low rate of teacher-parent communication: implementation barriers, time-costs, and the absence of school-wide communication policies. Implementation barriers include the lack of easy access to parent contact information, outdated contact information records, language barriers between teachers and parents, and the lack of non-instructional time teachers have to make calls or send texts/emails during the school day. Many of these are technical challenges that schools can address with systematic efforts to update contact information, translation services and software, and data management systems with user-friendly teacher dashboards.

Providing dedicated time during the workday for teachers to reach out to parents is a more difficult challenge. One option would be to relieve teachers of non-instructional responsibilities that could be performed by less costly teachers' aids or parent volunteers. Another would be to increase the amount of non-instructional time in teachers' contractually obligated workdays as Boston Public Schools recently did in their expanded school day initiative. A third option is to enhance the efficiency of the time teachers already spend communicating with parents.

Detailed time-use data for educators is hard to come by.  A time-use study of a random sample of classroom teachers in Washington state found that teachers spend approximately 8% of their non-instructional workhours communicating with parents — about one hour each week.  In ongoing work, Jason Grissom and Susanna Loeb have found that principals spend even less time communicating with parents — as little as 3% of their workday. Although less than ideal, even secondary school teachers who work with over 100 students could speak with every parent at least once a year for ten minutes if they dedicated just 30 minutes a week to making phone calls.  A growing body of research demonstrates that text messages provide an efficient way to reach parents with individualized messages on a more frequent basis.

The lack of guidance and clear expectations around teacher-parent communication is, in my view, the factor that is most commonly overlooked. No formal teacher-parent communication policies or practices were communicated to me at either of the public schools where I taught.  Beyond general encouragement by administrators to contact parents, teachers are left to determine when, how and why they should reach out to parents. Reducing the income-based "e-mail communication gap" requires both increasing access to e-mail as well as proactive communication policies designed to distribute teacher-initiated communication across all families. Without formal expectations combined with sufficient time and the necessary communication infrastructure, teachers may take a passive approach to communication as they shift their attention to other tasks. Promoting more transparency around the frequency with which each staff member is contacting parents could also serve to foster positive peer effects among teacher teams.

In hindsight, I know my students and I would have benefitted if I had communicated with parents more frequently and effectively. These conversations could have enhanced parents' efforts to support their students' learning, and they could have helped me better understand the individual needs of each of my students.  It is well within our ability to make teacher-parent communication the norm rather than the exception. Whether we will do so remains an open question. 

--Matthew Kraft 

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