Opinion
Families & the Community Opinion

Giving Parents, and Teachers, the Right Information

By Richard Carranza, Susanna Loeb & Benjamin York — October 06, 2015 4 min read

One of the big questions facing American school districts is how to provide teachers and parents with helpful information, in a timely way, so that they can put it to good use for children.

Busy parents are inundated with school- and district-generated emails, robo-calls, and photocopied materials that are sent—and sometimes actually arrive—home. Parents and teachers alike struggle to make sense of student test-score reports that aren’t always presented in a digestible format.

The point of the information provided to parents and teachers is to get them to do something with it, to act in ways that help improve student learning. But if the information isn’t clear, or isn’t even received, it can’t possibly be put to use. The result is a big opportunity lost.

BRIC ARCHIVE

In San Francisco, the quest to provide teachers and parents with understandable, actionable information has produced two successful strategies that may hold lessons for school districts in other parts of the country. Both strategies were born of strong partnerships between the San Francisco Unified School District and outside experts—in this case, researchers from Stanford University. Now in its sixth year, this partnership has been supported by the Silver Giving Foundation, the Heising Simons Foundation, and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund.

The first strategy centers on parents, and has already received attention in Education Week and elsewhere for its efficacy, low cost, and digital-age currency. It’s a program called Ready4K! that uses text messaging to deliver tips to the parents of preschoolers, suggesting fun and easy ways that they can support their children’s early literacy development at home. During the school year, we send tips three times each week: one about a particular literacy skill, a second prompting an activity to develop that skill, and a third about how to build on it.

The most salient lesson derived from the program is that it succeeds in prompting adult behavior that helps children learn. A recent study showed that the program increased the frequency with which parents engaged in home literacy activities. Moreover, children of parents who received our texts gained the equivalent of up to three months of additional learning in some areas of literacy, compared with a randomly assigned control group of children whose parents did not get the messages.

If assessment data aren’t presented in clear, usable formats, they aren’t worth much."

But we also confirmed the importance of meeting parents where they are most likely to pay attention to the message. That meant trying something completely new. We chose cellphones as a delivery mechanism because the vast majority of Americans own and text with them, and the open rate for text messages is three times that of email. We made it as easy as possible for parents to opt in, offering them a very short form to fill out in the course of the regular enrollment paperwork.

In most aspects of education and parent engagement, cheaper is seldom better. Yet Ready4K! has proven to be very inexpensive to implement. At scale, we estimate that the program will cost less than $10 per family per year, far less expensive than most parent-education programs.

The second initiative of our partnership centers on getting actionable information to teachers. As the district developed a focus on early learning in an effort to help narrow a persistent achievement gap, it needed better data on the progress of children in its pre-K classrooms. But we weren’t entirely pleased with any single available measure, so we worked to create a more holistic metric that would cover all the bases that are so important in early-childhood development.

Our new metric is based on two existing measures of student progress (the Desired Results Developmental Profile and the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening) and captures children’s early literacy and numeracy skills, social/emotional and physical development, and health. This measure gives the district a broader sense of the strengths and challenges of each student and, more importantly, gives teachers at both the pre-K and kindergarten levels the information they most need, which is the kind that guides instruction and other supports.

If assessment data aren’t presented in clear, usable formats, however, they aren’t worth much. For that reason, we also developed easy-to-use reports for principals and teachers, and co-led trainings on interpretation. We’re also working with the district’s early-education department to manage and standardize data collection in pre-K, so that future reporting and analysis can be conducted more efficiently.

Both the texting and kindergarten-readiness-measure efforts are detailed in a recently published New America case study of San Francisco’s pre-K-3 strategy (“The Power of a Good Idea: How the San Francisco School District Is Building a PreK-3rd Grade Bridge”). The case study places our partnership in the context of the much larger effort by the district to shrink achievement gaps by bolstering programs for young children, starting at age 3, and aligning curricula and professional development across pre-K and the early grades. Research, experience in other school systems, and promising early results from San Francisco all suggest this is a smart approach.

Our joint efforts to find more effective ways to communicate information are two strategies worth considering as school districts and early educators double down on their efforts to ensure that more children enter kindergarten ready to learn. But this much is clear: Good information, presented clearly and in accessible ways, is essential to any strategy that needs to engage both teachers and parents to succeed.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2015 edition of Education Week as Information Parents and Teachers Can Use

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