The Key to More Involved Parents? Tisch Lecturer Susanna Loeb Thinks It Could Be | Teachers College Columbia University

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The Key to More Involved Parents? Tisch Lecturer Susanna Loeb Thinks It Could Be Texting


Eighty-eight percent of American adults have cell phones. Nearly 100 percent of cell owners have access to text messaging; text messages have a 95 percent “open rate” (compared to only 36 percent for emails); and research indicates that parents of color text with the highest frequency.

All of which makes text messaging  “an ideal vehicle” for schools to create a tighter, more successful relationship with a new generation of parents whose very young children are just beginning their schooling, argued Susanna Loeb, Barnett Family Professor of Education at Stanford, who delivered TC’s 2015 Tisch Lecture at the end of November.

Using an innovative new program called READY 4K, Loeb and her doctoral student, Benjamin York, have demonstrated that these parents (who have an even higher rate of cell phone ownership) become actively involved in their young children’s educational development when they sign up to receive three short text messages each week throughout the school year focusing directly on literacy development.

As Loeb readily acknowledged, the READY4K! program drew on research conducted by TC’s Peter Bergman, Assistant Professor of Economics and Education. Bergman’s research, conducted at a low-income, predominantly Latino high school in Los Angeles, showed significant improvements in student attendance and grades when parents received bimonthly text messages about their children’s progress and missing assignments.

Loeb, who is also Faculty Director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford, says that while most parents want to help their children learn, many factors – particularly in low-income communities – often get in the way. Parents often feel overwhelmed by “cognitive load,” or the availability of too much information about the best approaches, may lose focus when they don’t see immediate results, and are frequently distracted by more pressing day-to-day realities. Traditional programs designed to increase parental involvement are often either ineffective or very expensive to run.

“Our idea is to break down the parenting complexity into small, easy-to-achieve parts, which reduce the choice and help parents with this over a long period of time,” Loeb says.

In a pilot study of READY4K! conducted with 440 families California, parents agreed to receive three short messages a week about literacy development throughout the school year: a Monday text with a basic fact about literacy on (such as “letters are the building blocks of written language”), a practical tip on Wednesday (asking parents, for example, to point out the first letter of your child’s name in magazines and on signs), and a “growth” text on Friday reinforcing providing encouragement and building on the tip provided earlier in the week.

Loeb says the results of the pilot were overwhelmingly positive, and she and York are now working on refining and expanding the program to make it even more effective. READY4K! now reaches about 30,000 families in 20 states, but the possibilities for further expansion are almost limitless.

Texting can quickly get measurable results with minimal cost, something that makes it particularly appealing in low-income communities and may ultimately become a critical tool in helping reduce the achievement gap. It’s already clear that it changes a long-standing dynamic. 

“What we were amazed at was how much the parents loved it,” Loeb says. – Ellen Livingston

Published Monday, Dec 28, 2015

Susanna Loeb
Tisch Lecturer Susanna Loeb, Barnett Family Professor of Education at Stanford University