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How Better School-to-Parent Communication Drives Educational Success

April 2, 2019
Researcher Peter Bergman works to improve educational outcomes by studying student and parent behavior

Peter Bergman is an Assistant Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Peter studies student and parent behavior, big data and scalable interventions that improve education outcomes. His research with the Walton Family Foundation has focused on the role information plays in parents’ decisions on where to live and send their children to school. We talked to Peter about how increasing parents’ access to information about schools can help their kids receive a better education.

WFF: For many folks, including those of us in education, “behavioral economics” may be unfamiliar terrain. Can you describe the real-world impact your work has for families and students?

Peter: I focus on the role of information in decision making, especially as it concerns families’ education choices.

One of my first big studies, for my dissertation , explored how parents perceived their child was doing in school based on the information they received. As any parent knows, when their child is the only messenger, not all information makes it back to the parent.

Prior to our intervention, we documented that parents tended to be over optimistic about how well their child was doing. For example, if we asked how many assignments their child had missed, parents underestimated by a factor of 10. They also underestimated their child’s absences and overestimated their math performance.

So we began providing detailed, biweekly information via text message to a random sample of parents about their child's missed assignments and grades. We found that parents’ perceptions became much more realistic and it was much easier to monitor their child’s progress— and that ultimately led to improved student achievement. The big “so what” that we demonstrated was that improving the quality of school-to-parent communication and providing frequent information to parents about their child's effort in school can produce large gains in achievement at a low cost.

WFF: You were a K-12 teacher in New York City, the same place you now conduct research. How has your experience in the classroom inspired or otherwise informed your work?

Helping families and students succeed is what my work is all about. I want to find out how we get them the information to be successful.

Peter: Right after college I was a New York City Teaching Fellow, teaching special education, English and social studies for 7th and 8th graders. My school has since shut down. But it was an eye-opening experience, to see kids coming from environments that I couldn’t fathom and a school that was struggling in a lot of ways. At the time, 8th grade test scores were high stakes for kids, and there were allegations that the school was holding back low-performing 7th graders year after year to inflate 8th grade scores. I had 15 year olds in my 8th grade class, many of whom weren’t yet reading on a 2nd grade level. I asked for books that were on my students’ level and the assistant principal said, “I’m not going to buy books for kids who are just going to age out anyways.”

This was heartbreaking. My families wanted their kids to do well, but they needed to be informed of what was happening in real time so that they could be involved in meaningful ways. Helping families and students succeed is what my work is all about. I want to find out how we get them the information to be successful.

Columbia University researcher Peter Bergman focuses on the role of information in how families make decisions about educational choices.

WFF: What’s the most exciting thing you’ve discovered about how small interventions can have a big impact on the quality of education a child receives?

Peter: I’m most excited about where my work has taken me—bringing successful interventions to scale. The dissertation work I noted earlier, where we provided parents with real-time detailed information about kids’ missed assignments and grades – that was a powerful way to engage families. It was timely and actionable. We weren’t waiting for report cards to come out, because it’s too late by then. We’ve seen our approach replicated by other researchers and contexts in Boston, England, Chile and Brazil. We even saw a study where researchers in sub-Saharan Africa are providing student absence information to parents, with big effects.

WFF: Your most recently released study looks at how public schools of choice like magnet and charter schools respond to specific types of inquiries from parents. Tell us about what you found.

Peter: We conducted a “mystery shopper” experiment in which we sent emails from fictitious parents to over 6,000 public schools of choice (charter schools and traditional district schools of choice) across 29 states. Each email asked the school how the parent can apply and whether anyone can apply. We wanted to understand whether schools were more or less likely to respond to these inquiries depending on background of the student. So each email signaled one of the following randomly assigned attributes about the student: disability status, poor behavior, high or low prior academic achievement or no indication of these characteristics. We also varied students’ implied race and gender as well.

We found significant differences in response rates across these characteristics. This suggests that schools of choice (charter schools and traditional public schools of choice) at large would benefit from improving their communications practices when responding to parent inquiries--especially for students who may be perceived as challenging or costly to educate. Charter schools, especially, need to improve their practices around communicating with parents of students with disabilities.

Relatedly, we found evidence that the costs of serving students with disabilities is a factor in school behavior. In states where charter schools get adequately reimbursed for the cost of serving students with special-needs, the difference between charter school behavior and district school behavior disappears. Policymakers need to explore solutions to these funding problems.

WFF: Finding ways to bring solutions that work to scale is important because it’s important that as many students as possible can benefit. What other information interventions have you found to be effective and scaled to help more families?

Peter: We’re wrapping up a study on how school information impacts the housing search for low-income families. For higher-income families interested in buying homes, they have information about school quality readily available on the sites they’re using, like Zillow, Trulia and Redfin.

They’ll see neighborhood-assigned schools and some measure of the performance of those schools. Lower-income families who are renting don’t have ready access to this kind of information. That seems like a fundamental problem that we have to solve. We’ve seen that wealthy families value this information. They’re willing to pay higher prices for better schools. We wanted to find a way to ensure low-income families have the same access to it?

So we partnered with GoSection8.com, the largest online affordable housing rental network, to get school information from GreatSchools.org into their housing searches. We found that adding this information onto housing listings targeted at low-income families causes them to inquire about rentals associated with better schools, and to ultimately move to areas with better schools as well.

As a result, GoSection8 will be implementing information from GreatSchools across their site, for all 300,000 of its users. That will help a lot of families make informed decisions.

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