Parent Phone Calls: The Evidence

Charlie Sposato spent over 30 years in the classroom, teaching English. When I hired him to be our founding principal, he explained that he liked to call parents a lot. Proactively. I kinda shrugged. It was hard for me to conceive. Certainly I'd never read any research in grad school on parent phone calls. Over time, I became a believer. So parent communication is a key aspect to our teacher prep.

But over the years, I also became a critic of education research. It sucks. It's almost all on policy. Individual teachers have no say in policy. So a study on XYZ curriculum or the effect of vouchers -- doesn't help individual teachers.

Yet there 3+ million such people in America alone. They make a ton of decisions each day. Where's their research? The stuff that makes their job easier? Particularly randomized trials?

There's almost none. There's no New England Journal of Medicine like thing for teachers. Most of what passes for research on teacher moves is laughable.

My belief is that a legit research base would help teachers. Now, you can't make teachers robots. But good research would help. Instead of relying only on convention, past experience, and gut to make decisions, a teacher could rely on those 3 things plus research.

Harvard doctoral students Shaun Dougherty and Matt Kraft did some work with us last summer. Here is the link to their final Kraft_Dougherty_Teacher_Communication_052311.

As I understand it, the idea is that once they've formally submitted it to various journals, it's okay for them to circulate. The whole process took a year. Much of that time was various big-name professors challenging these guys on their statistical methods. Anyway, they did great work. If we (the K-12 community in the USA) could get 1,000 of experiments like these going each year, then we'd build something that looks like medicine. It sounds daunting. But hell. There are 1,000+ Ed Schools. Couldn't each Ed School be responsible to produce 1 piece per year of randomized research about teacher moves?

Anyway, here's what Matt and Shaun found:


In this study, we seek to evaluate the efficacy of teacher communication with parents and students as a means of increasing student engagement. We estimate the causal effect of teacher communication with parents and students on student engagement by conducting a randomized field experiment in which 6th and 9th grade students were assigned to receive both a daily phone call home and a text/written message during a mandatory summer school program.

We find that frequent teacher-family communication immediately increased student engagement as measured by homework completion rates, on-task behavior and class participation. On average, teacher-family communication increased homework completion rates by 6 percentage points and decreased instances in which teachers had to redirect students’ attention to the task at hand by 32%.

Class participation rates among 6th grade students increased by 33% while communication appeared to have no effect on 9th grade students’ willingness to participate. Drawing upon surveys and interviews with participating teachers and students, we identify three primary mechanisms through which communication likely affected engagement: stronger teacher-student relationships, expanded parental involvement, and increased student motivation.

The point here isn't to be the final say on parent communication. Not at all. The point is much, much smaller. In a world where 1,000+ such randomized trials were done each year, you'd take promising "little findings" like this one and run bigger experiments to see if the "teacher move" held up in other situations -- different schools, kids, teachers, messaging, dosage, time of school year, etc. Since we don't live in such a world, the value is fragmented. People can make of it what they will, but it probably wouldn't convince many folks who didn't already believe in the calls.

Charlie, were he alive today, probably would have chuckled. I imagine him saying: "Mike, you didn't need to do all this math stuff. Here are the phone numbers for lots of parents I got to know over the years. Just call them up and ask!"