This time, working with the largest school district in West Virginia, they built software that communicated directly with the electronic gradebook that teachers were already using, and they used the phone numbers parents provided on class lists. The result was automated messages like this one:
- Parent alert: Jaden has 5 missing assignments in science class. For more information log online.
What's really interesting is that, for the most part, parents didn't follow up by logging online. Studies across hundreds of schools with online portals show that very few ever do.
Simply sending updates to parents' pockets, though, seemed to make all the difference. They contacted the school more often. And presumably, they talked to their kids.
Bergman says that, when asked, parents who got the text messages showed a more realistic, less optimistic view of their children's school performance.
Lots of research supports the idea that students succeed when parents get involved. But most policymakers treat parental involvement as something that's determined largely by factors that are tough to budge, like family income and education. This study suggests that parents may just need a little help.
"If my Internet goes down, I can call any time, day or night," says Bergman, who must have a better Internet provider than I do.
"If I want to figure out whether my child's missing any assignments, by 8 or 9 p.m. when I get home from work, good luck," Bergman adds. "The school is shut."
Report cards come out quarterly. Children and teens may shade the truth. But timely text reports from teachers can apparently prompt better behavior. And all for a fraction of a cent per message.
Bergman hastens to underline that text messages are no panacea: "I think this is one piece of a larger puzzle." For one thing, the significant results came almost entirely from the high school students in the study, not the middle-schoolers.
Still, interest in the general area of "nudging" better behavior is growing. NPR Ed previously covered trials using text messages and emails that prompt college students to sign up for financial aid and reduce dropouts among adult-education students.
Justin Reich, who studies education technology at MIT, says this direction of research looking for simple, cheap interventions is welcome. "I think there is a serious problem in ed-tech funding, which is that there's too much interest in things that look sexy, that are on the horizon, and are untested and unproven," he says. "If we can adopt a technology that is almost universally accessible to parents, it has positive outcomes on their kid, and it doesn't cost very much, that seems like a positive thing to me."
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