Can a postcard reduce pupils’ absenteeism?

In an effort to improve parents’ and guardians’ awareness of absenteeism, and therefore reduce pupil absenteeism, the Philadelphia school district in the US together with the National Center for Evaluation and Regional Assistance conducted a randomised controlled trial based on the principles of “nudge” theory. Nudge theory is an approach that involves unobtrusive intervention to promote desired behaviours.

In this study, the “nudge” was a single postcard sent to the homes of pupils in grades 1–12 (Years 2–13 in the UK) who had been absent the previous year to test whether it could reduce absenteeism and what impact, if any, different messages had. Two types of message were tested: one simply encouraging parents to improve their child’s attendance; the other included specific information about their child’s attendance history as well as encouraging them to improve their child’s attendance. A control group received no postcards from the school.

Todd Rogers and colleagues found that receiving a postcard reduced absences by around 2.4 percent. There was no statistically significant difference in pupils’ absence according to which message their parents received. The effect of the postcard did not differ between pupils in grades 1– 8 (Years 2–9) and pupils in grades 9–12 (Years 10–13).

Source: A randomized experiment using absenteeism information to “nudge” attendance (February 2017), Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic.

A randomised controlled trial of the repeated reading strategy

Repeated reading is a strategy used to develop children’s reading fluency in targeted text. However, little research has been done using randomised trials to determine the extent to which fluency gained in repeated reading generalises to new text in terms of accuracy, speed, comprehension and expression. In an effort to examine the effectiveness of the repeated reading strategy, Scott Ardoin and colleagues at the University of Georgia and Mount Holyoke College conducted a randomised controlled trial comparing pupils’ fluency development using repeated reading to their fluency development using wide reading (non-repetitive reading of passages with minimal word and content overlap) and to a third group who continued with business as usual.

A total of 168 second grade (Year 3) pupils in three schools in the southeastern US were matched on standardised pre-testing by reading level in groups of three and assigned to one of the three groups. Pre-tests were also conducted for eye movement and prosody. Each pupil received 20 minutes of individualised intervention four times a week for 9-10 weeks.

Results showed that while all pupils gained in all areas, the pupils in the experimental conditions gained more than the business-as-usual pupils, with the lowest-achieving pupils making the most gains. It was of note that there was no significant advantage to being in the repeated reading group versus the wide reading group.

Source: Repeated versus wide reading: A randomized control design study examining the impact of fluency interventions on underlying reading behaviour (December 2016), Journal of School Psychology, 59 pp 13-38

Do computers have a negative effect on children’s social development?

A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research reports the findings from a large-scale randomised controlled trial that explores whether owning a home computer has a negative effect on children’s social development.

The study included 1,123 students in grades 6-10 (Years 7-11) in 15 different schools across California. Students were eligible to take part in the trial only if they did not already have a computer at home. Half were then randomly selected to receive free computers, while the other half served as the control group. Surveys were conducted with the students and schools at the start of the school year to collect data on child and household characteristics and school participation. Follow-up surveys were then administered at the end of the school year, and the data compared to establish any causal evidence.

As predicted, Robert W Fairlie and Ariel Kalil found that having computers at home did increase the amount of time that children spent on social networking sites and email as well as for games and other entertainment. However, rather than being socially isolating, children in the treatment group communicated with 1.57 more friends per week than children in the control group, and spent 0.72 more hours with their friends in person. They also found no evidence that the children who received a computer were less likely to participate in sports teams or after-school clubs, or spend any less time in these activities.

Source: The effects of computers on children’s social development and school participation: evidence from a randomized control experiment (December 2016), NBER Working Paper No. 22907, The National Bureau of Economic Research

Improving reading comprehension for English learners

A randomised controlled trial, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, has examined the impact of a version of the PACT reading comprehension and content acquisition intervention, which was modified to meet the needs of pupils with English as an Additional Language (EALs), in eighth-grade (Year 9) social studies classes.

Sharon Vaughn and colleagues carried out the trial with schools with moderate to high concentrations of EALs. In the selected schools, all eighth-grade (Year 9) social studies teachers participated, and classes were randomly assigned to the treatment or comparison condition. Each teacher taught both PACT treatment classes and comparison classes, and the same social studies content was delivered to pupils in both conditions, but with the interrelated components of PACT included in the treatment classes.

Pupils in the treatment group did better than pupils in the comparison group on measures of content knowledge acquisition and content reading comprehension, but not general reading comprehension. Both EALs and non-EALs who received the intervention performed better on measures of content knowledge acquisition (effect size = 0.40) and content-related reading (effect size = 0.20).

Source: Improving content knowledge and comprehension for English language learners: Findings from a randomized control trial (January 2017), Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 109(1)

Breakfast clubs boost reading and mathematics results for primary school pupils

Breakfast clubs that offer pupils in primary schools a free and nutritious meal before school can boost their reading, writing and maths results, according to the results of a randomised controlled trial published by the Education Endowment Foundation.

Over the course of an academic year parents of around 8,600 pupils from 106 primary schools in England with higher than average numbers of disadvantaged pupils were encouraged to send their child to free breakfast clubs. The independent evaluation by researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the National Children’s Bureau found that for Year 2 children the provision of a breakfast club led to a significant improvement in the main outcome measures of mathematics (Effect Size = +0.15) and reading (+0.10) when compared with schools running “business as usual”. For Year 6 children, the impact on assessments were positive but slightly smaller in reading (+0.10) and mathematics (+0.08). Surprisingly, there were larger improvements for pupils not eligible for free school meals than for those eligible.

The evaluators also reported that pupils’ behaviour and concentration improved. Attendance at school also improved for pupils in breakfast club schools, resulting in about 26 fewer half-days of absence per year for a class of 30. The findings suggest that it is not just eating breakfast that delivers improvements, but attending a breakfast club. This could be due to the content of the breakfast itself, or to other social or educational benefits of the club.

Source: Magic Breakfast: Evaluating school breakfast provision. Evaluation report and executive summary (2016), Education Endowment Foundation

Better parenting for school readiness – there’s an app for that

A randomised controlled trial carried out by the University of Oxford’s Department of Education and published by the Sutton Trust tested EasyPeasy, a smartphone app for the parents and carers of two- to six-year-old children. EasyPeasy aims to improve school readiness by encouraging positive play and interaction with young children.

The trial, which lasted 18 weeks, was carried out in eight children’s centres in Bournemouth with 144 families taking part. Games were sent directly to parents’ mobiles via an app once a week along with tailored prompts, encouragement, reminders, and information on child development.

The study reported significant findings for two out of seven outcome measures. Parents who took part in the intervention reported improvements in their children’s persistence and concentration (cognitive self-regulation). Parental consistency with discipline and boundaries also increased in the intervention group with parents feeling more comfortable setting limits for behaviour and following through on expectations. Both showed positive effect sizes; 0.51 and 0.44 respectively.

Source: EasyPeasy parenting app: Findings from an e­fficacy trial on parent engagement and school readiness skills (2016), The Sutton Trust