School & District Management

Can Texting Lead to Sustained Attendance Gains for High Schools? Nope.

By Catherine Gewertz — November 10, 2016 1 min read
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Text messages have proven to be powerful partners in reminding students of key milestones they need to complete in order to make it to college. So researchers wondered: Could we use texting to produce a sustained improvement in high school students’ attendance?

Turns out that the answer is no.

The research organization MDRC teamed up with New Visions for Public Schools, which provides coaching and other supports to a chain of 70 schools in New York City, to see if texts could improve attendance. New Visions wrote the texting software and put it into practice during the second semester of 2015-16.

The program accessed attendance records and automatically sent daily text messages to parents, telling them whether their children had shown up for class that day. It also texted the parents weekly attendance summaries. But the experiment found that attendance wasn’t any better than for a control group of students whose parents did not receive the texts, MDRC reports in a paper on the texting project.

That’s not to say that texting can’t have any impact on attendance. The MDRC report points out that a few other studies have found that getting texts about attendance can improve student attendance within a week of getting the text message. The MDRC study sought to examine whether students’ attendance over the course of an entire semester could be affected if their parents received regular texts.

The project was aimed at a simple truth: Students can’t cross that crucial threshold—earning a diploma—if they’re absent too much to learn. Schools are always seeking ways to improve attendance, at any grade level, since it undermines learning and increases students’ risk of falling behind in school, and, ultimately, dropping out.

Sending texts is a low-cost intervention that has been found to help students complete key steps in the college process. The Common Application recently added a feature to its service that uses text messages to remind students about important financial-aid deadlines. Other initiatives have found success reducing “summer melt” by using texts to “nudge” students into taking steps that ensure that they’ll actually enroll and show up at one of the colleges that accepted them.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.