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Parent–teacher Meetings and Student Outcomes: Evidence from a Developing Country

By: Asad Islam

European Economic Review (volume 111)

Published version

Manuscript version (free)

Commentary by Lee Crawfurd

There are now several studies analysing the (generally positive) effects of publishing school report cards in developing countries. But so far there haven’t been any trials of providing pupil-report cards to parents. This is a bit strange since report cards were originally designed for pupils specifically – and the idea of creating aggregate report cards for schools is a more recent development.

One-on-one meetings between teachers and parents to discuss children’s performance, and provide pupil-report cards, are of course ubiquitous in high-income countries. They are also common in elite private schools in low-income countries. Yet such meetings are currently not the norm in most schools in developing countries.

In this paper, Asad Islam reports the results from a randomised experiment that evaluated the impact of a parent-teacher meeting programme in Bangladesh. In rural Bangladesh, parents normally have limited contact with teachers, and they don’t know much about what is happening at school. Parents often don’t have the confidence to approach teachers, while teachers often think parents aren’t interested in or able to help with their children’s schooling. Informal communication is rare too, limited to parents who are especially motivated. Since parents in rural environments in developing countries do not pick up or drop off their children, the informal chats that normally occur at those times in developed countries do not tend to happen in rural schools in developing countries.

To improve teacher-parent communication, the author worked with a local NGO and the government to develop monthly face-to-face meetings between teachers and parents for two academic years. At each meeting, the teacher provided parents with a report card and discussed the child’s academic progress. Guidelines encouraged teachers to encourage parents to spend more time assisting their children and monitoring their school work.

Teachers in both treatment and control schools received a bonus of $25 (15-20% of average salaries) to encourage participation. 76 schools were randomised into either the treatment group (40 schools) or control group (36 schools), covering over 6,000 pupils in years 3–5. There were five meetings in the first year and eight meetings in the second year. In the first year, 90 per cent of parents attended at least one meeting, and 95 percent in the second year. On average, parents attended three out of five meetings in the first year and five out of eight meetings in the second year.

The effects of the intervention were positive and large: it increased test scores by the equivalent of more than an entire year of learning in each of the two years. There is some variability in the effects depending on year group and pupil ability. Among pupils in years 4 and 5, the impact is consistent across all subjects, including mathematics, English, and science.

However, among pupils in year 3, the effects are only apparent in English and science, which is likely because parents of these children attended fewer meetings with the teachers. While treatment effects are larger among high-ability pupils than among low- and average-ability pupils in the first year, effects are similar across ability levels after two years. Overall, therefore, it appears as if the intervention improved efficiency without necessarily decreasing equity.

The paper investigates whether the improvement came via changes in teaching, parent support, or the pupils themselves, and finds some support for all three mechanisms. Teachers were more likely to use visual aids and real-world examples to teach concepts, and less likely to just stick to the textbook. Parents and siblings were more likely to help pupils with schoolwork at home, and pupils were more likely to receive private tutoring, as a result of the intervention. There were also positive effects on motivation: pupils reported spending more time studying, feeling more confident about exams, and having higher ambitions.

Note: Figure shows GPA test scores distribution of treatment and control school children of grade 5 students at the end of year 1 of the intervention.

Fig. A4. Distribution of Cumulative GPA Test Scores in Year 1

Overall, there is no doubt that the intervention was incredibly cost effective. Indeed, the programme cost a total of $300 for each school, which comes to about $1.58 per pupil over two years. At such low cost, in combination with such large learning gains, this is one of the most cost-effective interventions ever rigorously evaluated in a developing country setting.

One important reason why the intervention may have been so effective is that it forced teachers to pay more specific attention to each child. Indeed, American research suggests that single-class teachers perform better than subject specialists at primary level – and having the same class teacher for two years in a row is even more positive for achievement. Teachers in developing countries typically have large classes and pupils with extremely variable ability, making personalised instruction incredibly challenging. Making teachers sit down each month with parents to discuss how each individual child is doing is simply likely to force them to pay closer attention to their pupils, perhaps just to have at least something to tell parents in the meetings and in this way avoid embarrassment.

It’s rather perplexing that this approach has not been tested more extensively in low- and middle-income countries – it clearly holds considerable promise as a cost-effective instrument to improve learning outcomes in such settings.

Of course, interventions typically work better when implemented on a small scale by an NGO with skilled staff and with researchers closely involved in the design, as was the case in this intervention. Government programmes at scale often fail to replicate the same effects. Here’s an idea that’s crying out for a government to try.

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Lee Crawfurd is a CfEE Fellow and Deputy-editor of CfEE’s new Monthly Research Digest.

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