Expert Commentary

Impact of teacher-parent communication: Research on “underutilized potential”

2014 paper from Harvard and Brown showing how richer teacher-to-parent messages can improve student outcomes, including increased course credits and lower dropout rates.

Parent-teacher communication (

As U.S. public-school students continue to underperform in global rankings for math, reading and science, controversies over reform efforts continue to unfold — from charters to vouchers, from high-stakes testing to school discipline. The achievement gap for children from poorer backgrounds persists, even as a 2014 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggests that states’ education budgets are on average providing less per-pupil funding for kindergarten through grade 12 than they did six years ago at the onset of the recession. A total of 14 states have cut per-pupil spending by 10%. In this context, better utilization of existing resources is perhaps a more promising avenue for improvement.

The world of behavioral economics, which has suggested providing some public policy “nudges” to improve student performance, may provide cost-effective solutions to improving students learning. One facet that has interested researchers is how students’ home environment can better support the learning done in school. A 2014 study, “The Underutilized Potential of Teacher-to-Parent Communication: Evidence from a Field Experiment,” looks into the effect of messages relayed from teachers to parents on the outcomes of a cohort of students taking part in a high-school summer credit recovery program.

The authors, Todd Rogers of Harvard University and Matthew Kraft from Brown University, argue that because students spend only 25% of their waking hours in school, targeting out-of-school factors could help improve performance. There is already a well-documented positive relationship between parental involvement and student’s performance; however, only four in ten families with school-age children report having been contacted by their child’s school about their child in the previous year.

In the experiment run by Rogers and Kraft, a sample of high-school students attending a summer credit-recovery program were randomly divided into three groups: In the first, parents received a weekly message from the teacher containing positive information about their children’s performance; in the second, parents received a weekly message with information on how the students could improve their performance; and the third group received no teacher-to-parent messages.

The study’s findings included:

  • Overall, students whose parents received some form of message from their teacher were 6.5 percentage points more likely to earn course credits for the classes they were enrolled in, compared to the control group. “Given that 15.8% of those in the control condition failed to earn course credit, the 6.5 percentage-point increase in course credit earning represents a 41% reduction in students failing to earn credit.”
  • Analysis indicates that this change is almost entirely due to a decrease in drop-outs among the treatment group. Students in the treatment group were 6.1 percentage points less likely to drop out of the program than those in the control group.
  • “Improvement information” messages were more effective than “positive information” messages about student performance. Students in the improvement information group experienced an 8.8 percentage-point increase in their likelihood to gain course credit, compared with 4.5 percentage points for students in the positive information group (this latter figure failed to reach the threshold for statistical significance).
  • Part of this positive effect seems to come down to reduced student absenteeism. Teacher-to-parent communication, using either form of information, reduced student absenteeism by 2.5 percentage points. While teacher-to-parent communication did not appear to increase the frequency with which parents communicated with their children about their schoolwork, it did appear to affect the content of those conversations. Students whose parents received improvement information from their teachers reported that their parents spoke to them more frequently about what they needed to do better in school, compared to the control group and compared to those whose parents received positive information.
  • One counterintuitive result was that higher levels of teacher-to-parent communication reduced the probability a teacher would rank their relationship with a student as “excellent” by 6.8 percentage points. However, this is consistent with previous research that shows that high-school students, unlike younger students, can become less willing to participate in class as a result of teacher-parent communications.

The study’s findings indicate that messages from teachers to parents containing actionable information about how a student can improve increases students’ academic success. “For participating students, these course credits could be the difference between being on-track or off-track to graduate from high school,” the authors state. Their “back-of-the-envelope” cost accounting for the intervention came out at just over $13 per student course. The return on this investment was an additional 24 course credits earned at a cost of $200 per credit. To put this into context, the school district where the experiment was conducted spends around $13,350 per student a year, or $2,225 per student course.

Keywords: public schools, children, youth

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