Research: Quick Teacher-Parent Communications Can Reduce Dropouts

A large but underused influence on student academic success in schools turns out to be parental communication. A new study done by researchers at Harvard University and Brown University found that a single individualized message sent weekly from a teacher to a parent documenting the student's performance in school was enough to reduce student failure by 41 percent. Students whose families received messages that focused on what they needed to improve in class were almost nine percentage points more likely to earn course credit.

The project, which was profiled in "The Underutilized Potential of Teacher-to-Parent Communication: Evidence from a Field Experiment," took place in a credit recovery program offered to high school students who had received a failing grade of F+ and were absent no more than 30 days during the school year. Students in the program could earn credits in up to two different courses they'd previously failed. The majority of the participants, who came from numerous high schools in the district, were African American and Hispanic and spoke 10 different languages at home other than English. More than 80 percent qualified for free and reduced lunch and 22 percent were in special ed programs.

The researchers recruited 435 students and their families to participate. Each was assigned to one of three groups. One group would receive a positive message; one would receive improvement information; and the third, used as a control, would receive no communication. Parents specified how they wanted the message to be received — by phone, text and e-mail.

In the beginning, all participating parents, including the control group, received an introductory phone call from their children's teachers. Then those assigned to the positive group received a weekly communication that highlighted what the student was doing well behaviorally or academically. Those in the improvement information condition were assigned to receive communications that highlighted what the student needed to improve on in school. The teachers doing the communications didn't know which group a student was assigned to; research assistants acted as liaisons to pass along the messages.

The work took the teachers about a minute apiece each week for each student. The effect was impressive. As the researchers noted, this "light touch" communication increased the likelihood that students would earn credits by 6.5 percent. That equated to a 41 percent reduction in the proportion who failed to earn credit. Specifically, the improvement prevented dropouts rather than reducing failure or dismissal rates.

The largest impact came from those messages telling parents what students could improve on vs. the ones that discussed what students were doing well. The researchers suggested that those improvement messages were "actionable" and gave parents information about what they could monitor in order to influence student performance in the classroom.

"Our results illustrate the underutilized potential of communication policies with clear but reasonable expectations for teachers and program designs that make communication efficient and effective," the researchers concluded.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.