Summer School is Coming, Get Parents Involved

Looking back, most people remember the end of the school year as a time of joy, freedom, and excitement.  But for hundreds of thousands of students, warmer weather brings summer school instead of summer break.

Whether as remediation or to make up for a credit-hour shortfall, summer school is a critical part of staying on track for on-time promotion and graduation for many students. For districts, however, summer school is often an under-resourced afterthought, and little data is collected on the effectiveness of summer school programs. Our research shows, however, that there is an extremely low-cost means of making summer school more effective: teachers providing parents with simple, weekly feedback on student performance.

In recent years, numerous experimental studies have found that empowering parents can lead to meaningful benefits for students. Frequent teacher-parent phone calls about students’ performance, behavior, and upcoming assignments immediately decreased misbehavior in class and increased homework completion and in-class participation during a summer academy. Texting parents about students’ missing assignments produces similar achievement gains on test scores as those produced by high-performing charter schools. Providing parents of high school students with information about the value of taking courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) increased the number of STEM classes their students took.

Yet schools often underutilize parents.  Among US families with school-age children, only 40% recall receiving a phone call from a teacher or administrator specifically about their child. More than a third of secondary school parents do not agree that their school keeps them well-informed of school events, activities, and issues.

Certainly the case can be made that communicating with parents is yet another item on a very long list of responsibilities that teachers are expected to fulfill.  In fact, our research shows that simply helping teachers share one sentence of feedback with parents each week decreased the percentage of students who failed to earn course credit from 15.8% to 9.3% – a 41% reduction.

We examined the effects of teacher-to-parent communication in a summer credit-recovery program for high school students in a large urban district. Half of parents in the treatment group received positive messages such as “Jamaal stayed focused in class all week – great improvement!” The other half received messages about where their student needed to improve: “Kirk did not submit his homework yesterday; please follow up with him about it.” The control group received no additional messaging from the teacher.

Evidence points to the improvement-focused messaging having a stronger impact on both credit attainment and student attendance, though the size of the study limits our ability to call the difference in outcomes between positive and improvement messaging statistically significant. Yet it is worth noting that when we analyzed the messaged content, we found that improvement-oriented messaging was far more likely to be actionable, specific, and refer to out-of-class issues that parents could address, such as missing homework assignments and absenteeism.  It is perhaps not surprising, then, that students in the improvement treatment group were more likely to report that they’d had a conversation with their parent about how they could do better in school. Put simply, parents who were provided with student feedback that was actionable and specific were more likely to talk about what a student could do to improve their performance, and those students were more likely to earn course credit.

On top of being unusually effective, the intervention is also remarkably inexpensive. A basic back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that these communications, including teacher time, cost about 1/10th as much per credit earned as the school district typically spends.  And our study involved costs that could be reduced significantly by utilizing modes of low-cost or even free communication already embedded within a school’s student information system, such as email, text message, or online parent portals.

These findings are the result of a very specific, inexpensive, and simple intervention that can be a potent strategy for improving outcomes for students at risk of delayed graduation or drop-out. Summer school is just around the corner, and flexibilities in teacher contracts and program policies make it an ideal time and space to develop new methods and standards for parent communication.  Making it easy for teachers to deliver weekly, action-oriented messages to parents could help more students this summer stay on track to graduate.

Parents can also ask for such information if it is not already being offered by their children’s schools. The request can be for something as simple as a weekly text message or email from their child’s teacher about one item the parent can do to support their child’s education.

The Student Social Support R&D Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School (led by Rogers and Bohling) develops these kinds of interventions: those that mobilize and empower parents to support their students’ academic achievement.  This study, and others like it, have us convinced that such empowerment is cost-effective, potent, and achievable—without burdening maxed-out teachers and tight school budgets.

While students may have hoped to spend their summers doing something else, hundreds of thousands will be attending summer school.  Educators can help them get the most out of it by empowering families to support their students.

– Guest Bloggers Kim Bohling, Todd Rogers, and Matthew Kraft

Kim Bohling is Senior Fellow in the Student Social Support R&D Lab at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Todd Rogers is Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Student Social Support R&D Lab at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and Matthew Kraft is Assistant Professor of Education at Brown University

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