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Study: Teacher Outreach to Parents Has 'Under-Explored Potential' in Schools

blog_communication.jpgIn case you were wondering whether your emails and phone calls to parents make a difference, rest assured: A new study by researchers at Harvard and Brown University finds that regular, personalized communications from teachers to parents can in fact have a significant impact on struggling students' chances for success in their classes.

That's particularly true, the researchers suggest, if teachers' messages include specifics about what students can do to improve their work.

The study, part of a series on low-cost school-improvement strategies, sought to "examine the effects of a light-touch communication intervention" aimed at helping parents better support their children in school. It was conducted by Matthew A. Kraft of Brown University and Todd Rogers of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.  

The study involved 435 high school students who were enrolled in a summer credit-recovery program for failing students in a large urban school district. The researchers randomly assigned the parents of the students to one of three groups. The parents in one group received a short weekly message (by phone, email, or text) from their child's teachers on what the students were doing well. Those in another group received weekly messages about what their students needed to improve. Finally, parents in a control group received no messages from the teachers.

At the end of the term, the researchers found that the students whose parents had received the weekly messages from teachers were 41 percent less likely to fail their courses than those in the control group, primarily owing to lower drop-out rates. 

Much of the difference in outcomes, the researchers said, was driven by the higher passing rates of the students whose parents had received the messages that included information about how the students could make improvements in their courses.

According to participant surveys that were included in the study, those students appeared to have more regular in-depth conversations with their parents about their school work.

"We find suggestive evidence," the researchers say, "that the sizeable increase in passing results among students in the improvement condition [or group] is the result of parents speaking with their children about what they needed to improve upon."

They also note that the teachers' messages on how students could improve were "overwhelmingly 'actionable,' " meaning that they focused on things parents could monitor, like making up a missed assignment or quiz. 

In their conclusion, Kraft and Todd state that findings highlight "the under-explored potential of teacher-parent communication," an area in which many schools, according to previous research, are not especially strong. 

They also emphasize that the intervention was relatively cheap in comparison with typical school-improvement initiatives. By their own rough calculation, the total cost of a communications program like the one they used for the study, including paying teachers for their extra time, would come to about $2,320.

Image: "Communication" by kleuske, Flickr Creative Commons.

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