We’ve all known kids who joke around in class, get up to mischief, and even skip school altogether, yet manage to ultimately thrive. But they are glaring exceptions. Classroom misbehavior and absenteeism, along with failing grades, are strong warning signs that a student is likely to repeat a grade or give up on school altogether down the line. In Latin America, where only 53% of students graduate from school on time and dropout rates are high, those problems are among education systems’ greatest challenges.
Part of the difficulty is that while schools routinely record students’ performance, they don’t necessarily share it with parents in a timely manner that would allow them to constructively intervene. Parents are often in the dark, and the consequences for a student’s future are potentially dire.
Recent work in the United States, and an experiment we conducted in Chile, however, show that low-cost communication technologies—in this case, text messages—can help turn things around. They can bridge the information gap between schools and parents, lead to greater parent involvement in their children’s academic life, and significantly improve student outcomes.
Our experiment conducted in Chile, at low-income schools with few resources, shows how sending simple text messages to the parents of school children can make a real difference. We created a program called Papás al Día and for two school years, we sent weekly and monthly text messages through the program to parents of 1000 students in grades four through eight in the metropolitan area of one of the country’s cities. The messages contained information on kids’ attendance, grades, and classroom behavior. The students’ age—an average of 10—was important. It is in this age bracket that attendance and grades start to matter, but before the risks of grade repetition or dropout significantly rises.
Our baseline survey confirmed how unaware many parents are of what is going on with their children studies. As can be seen in Figure 1, about one in four parents had inaccurate information about their kids’ class attendance and grades. When examined against an at-risk index—an average of standardized attendance, standardized math grades, and negative behavioral notes from teachers—the perils of misinformation for grade retention and dropout were clear. More than 80% of the parents of the students with the highest at-risk values had inaccurate information on their children’s attendance (red line in the figure) and around half were mistaken about their grades (blue line in the figure). These are precisely the discrepancies, or information gaps, that our intervention was intended to correct.
Figure 1: Baseline Share of Misinformed Parents
The experiment involved dividing parents into a treatment group and a control group. The treatment group received individualized weekly messages on their kids’ attendance and monthly messages on their classroom behavior and scores on math tests. Parents in both groups got messages about general school matters and the usual quarterly report cards.
Better Student Performance
The results show that our intervention significantly moved the needle. The children of parents in the treatment group increased their chances of earning a passing grade by 2.7 percentage points. The intervention also reduced school absenteeism by 1 percentage point and increased the share of students who attended school sufficiently to move on to the next grade by 4.5 percentage points, with the effects in all these areas greatest for the students with the lowest initial math grades and attendance rates.
Another area of inquiry was whether there could be spill-over effects: whether more students would benefit when more of their classmates were in the program. So we randomized the level of treatment so that in some classrooms 75% of students were treated and in others only 25%. We found that there were indeed such effects. Educational outcomes were better for students in classrooms where a higher percentage of students were subjected to the intervention, suggesting significant potential for scaling-up.
Figure 2: Predicted Treatment Effects by Baseline Characteristics
Panel A: Math Score
Panel B: Attendance Rate
How Text Messaging Boosts Parents Involvement
Why was the experiment successful? Why did providing parents with information boost attendance and grades? Baseline and follow-up survey data from parents and students show that the intervention changed parents’ interactions with their children at home. Treated students felt their parents were more supportive and more involved in their school affairs. Treated parents—and especially those of at-risk students—showed greater willingness to pay for the information parents in the control group, an indication of the extent to which the intervention had made them appreciate its value.
The Papás al Día program is extremely cheap: at current market prices it would cost a maximum of US$11 per student per year to replicate our intervention at the same frequency. In Chile, only 65% of students in the lowest-income quintile finish high school, compared with more than 96% of students in the highest income quintile. Grade repetition—linked to school dropout—is also high, at 13% by the first year of secondary school. These patterns are common in Latin America, threatening the long-term economic prospects of children, and especially poor children, and the productivity of their countries. If school systems could use low-cost, easy-to-implement digital tools to bring parents more into their children’s academic lives in primary and middle school, as we did, it could make a real difference.