Data confirm the reason teachers should nag parents about missed assignments: it works

Badgering works.
Badgering works.
Image: Reuters/Russell Cheyne
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Research from around the world shows that parents are often overoptimistic about how their children perform at school. They think they miss less class, complete more assignments, and score better on exams than they do in reality.

Tangentially, multiple experiments have found that one of the best ways to improve a kid’s performance is to badger parents with information about the truth—however annoyed or defensive it might make them. When parents are consistently informed about what’s actually happening at school, research shows their kids’ grades improve dramatically.

A recently published study by Columbia University economist Peter Bergman is the latest to demonstrate the power of a nagging message. For the study, the parents of hundreds of Los Angeles public school students were sent biweekly updates on missed assignments for a six-month period (including missed homework, essays, exams, etc.). Parents could choose to receive the information by text, email, or phone call—79% chose text. Most of the students were from low income families.

The students of parents who received the updates performed significantly better than those in a control group who were not updated. They were 25% more likely complete assignments, 28% less likely to miss class, and 24% less likely to show “unsatisfactory work habits” according to their teacher (the research does not specify what these habits looked like). This all translated to a significant jump in grade point average (GPA) and math test scores. Reading scores, which are more difficult to boost because of the reading’s relative complexity compared to math, were not impacted. These kinds of effects for such a small and inexpensive intervention are rare.

World Bank economist David Evans points out that this study is part of a mounting literature on the benefits of a constant flow of feedback to parents. Another recent study (pdf) conducted in Chile on 4th through 8th graders found that texting parents weekly with information on attendance, grades, and behavior led to improvements in math scores, and decreased the likelihood of failing any class. A 2014 experiment (pdf) in Philadelphia showed that when parents were given more frequent information about their child’s school attendance, it led to reductions in future absences.

Why does this work so well? Evans believes it’s because it gives parents a specific way to engage with their kids. It’s long been understood that parental involvement is key to student achievement. All types of kids, rich or poor, are much more likely to thrive academically if their parents support them and stay on their case. But quarterly report cards don’t give parents what they need to properly engage.

“With a report card, it is very difficult to know what it is that I should encourage my child to do to perform better—the information is too aggregated.” Evans told Quartz. “But if I get an email that says my child missed an assignment, the action that I need to take is very clear.”

Parents want to help their kids do better at school. But to be effective at providing that help, up-to-date, accurate information about what’s actually going on can go a long way.