A summer of nudging

Guest post by Benjamin L. Castleman

It’s official: We’re in the dog days of summer. For some kids—particularly those from more affluent backgrounds—this means adventures at sleep-away camp, family vacations, and sports training programs; for older kids, it often means extended road trips to visit colleges. Other, less-advantaged children aren’t always so lucky. Out of school, with limited family resources, academic and extracurricular enrichment activities are often few and far between. Televisions replace teachers; Xbox 360s take the place of books.

castlemanA growing body of research demonstrates that, come the next fall, lower-income children will have experienced substantial declines in student achievement from the previous spring. These declines—often referred to as the “summer slide”—can be a significant contributing factor to persistent academic achievement gaps by family income.

How can we prevent the summer slide and ensure that all students have enriching (and hopefully fun) summers? One policy approach to level the playing field is to extend the school year so that lower-income students are spending more of the year engaged in learning. Another strategy is to pay for disadvantaged children to have the same memorable summer camp experiences as their richer peers. The Fresh Air Fund in New York City (where my mother was a counselor) is one such model. These approaches hold considerable merit, but they’re also resource-intensive, and hard to scale to all students who we’d like to have quality summer experiences.

Recent work in the burgeoning field of behavioral economics and education suggests that low-cost, highly-scalable nudges should be added to policymakers’ toolkit of solutions for addressing summer learning loss. Nudges can take various forms, from simplified, actionable information that enables people to make active and informed decisions about the opportunities they pursue to prompts that help people follow through on their own intentions. In one recent nudge intervention, Susanna Loeb and Ben York at Stanford sent parents of preschool-age children text messages with simple, concrete literacy strategies they could practice at home. For instance, one text read, “Say two words to your child that start with the same sound, like happy and healthy. Ask: can you hear the ‘hhh’ sound in happy & healthy?” Each message cost a penny per student to send, but the children whose parents received these texts scored substantially higher on cognitive tests than children whose parents did not receive the texts. This type of messaging campaign could easily be adapted to provide parents of elementary-age children with specific, short activities to keep their kids academically engaged over the summer.

Another role for behavioral solutions is to help students make the most out of summer school if they are required to attend. Parents can play an important role in helping their children stay focused and engaged during summer school, but often lack good information about what is required of their children or how they are performing. Researchers Matt Kraft and Todd Rogers designed an experiment in which they sent parents of children in summer school weekly messages providing information about how their child was doing. Some parents received messages emphasizing what their child was doing well; others received messages focused on what their child needed to improve. Interestingly, the “areas for improvement” information catalyzed parents to speak more frequently with their child about what actions they could take to do better; children in this group were substantially more likely to earn credit from their summer course.

A little bit of targeted outreach over the summer can even make the difference in whether students successfully enroll in college or not. The summer after high school is a perfect storm for many college-intending, low-income high school graduates. They have to complete a complex array of financial and procedural tasks in order to successfully matriculate in college, yet are typically isolated from college advising. High school counselors typically don’t work over the summer, but students have frequently not yet engaged with supports available at their college. In work with my colleague Lindsay Page, we find that sending students a few simple text message reminders about tasks they have to complete over the summer and inviting students to write back to the texts if they need advising assistance can substantially increase the share of students that successfully enroll in college in the fall.

It’s mid-July. Students have been out of school for weeks, and in most parts of the country the next academic year is still more than a month away. For many low-income students across the country, learning has already started to deteriorate, and without proactive intervention will continue to slide in the weeks to come. Behavioral solutions offer policymakers a low-cost, scalable solution to combat this learning loss and level the summer playing field between economically-disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers.

Ben Castleman is an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia. He is the author of the forthcoming book The 160-Character Solution: How Text Messaging and Other Behavioral Strategies Can Improve Education.

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