What 40 Million Messages Tell Us About Parent-Teacher Communication

Something crucial was missing from classrooms over the past school year: millions of students who were part of the chronic absenteeism crisis that plagued districts large and small.

Could better communication between schools and parents alleviate the problem?

That’s the theory one nonprofit has. It partnered with Google for a massive, AI-powered analysis of 40 million messages in its app to find how parents and teachers are exchanging information.

The organization, called TalkingPoints, is betting that helping parents — especially those who are immigrants or are low-income — feel engaged with schools will increase both attendance and students’ academic performance.

Through its new analysis, TalkingPoints set out to find what educators and parents were most commonly talking about via messaging and the tone of those conversations. The messages analyzed were sent through the TalkingPoints app by administrators, teachers and parents over 15 months.

The results found that 44 percent of the messages were around logistics — things like school closures on snow days, says Heejae Lim, TalkingPoints founder and CEO. The next largest class of messages was what the report calls standard replies — responses like “thank you” or “have a good day” — at 34 percent.

Only 8 percent of messages were about academics, followed by homework at 5 percent.

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To Lim, that means there’s a lot of room for improvement in how educators and parents are communicating. In an ideal world, she explains, most of those electronic conversations would center on learning.

“We know that research shows that there needs to be more conversations about student learning, behaviors, engagement,” Lim says. “All the other higher-quality conversation topics that we think should happen comes back to: there might be a lot of quantity [of] the conversations. But are they quality conversations? Not necessarily.”

Part of why Lim wants to change how educators and parents talk to each other is because TalkingPoints is turning its attention to how communication can potentially lower chronic absenteeism. The app’s use for that purpose is being piloted in 29 districts with a collective 89,000 students.

The hope is this creates a digital trail of an absent student so that the principal or other specialists can figure out the root cause for why they’re missing.

“We see ourselves as being in this really critical moment, where education inequities are rising,” says Laila Brenner, TalkingPoints’ head of philanthropy. “We have chronic absenteeism, we have decades of learning loss, and then we have this wave of advances in technology and AI that are giving us the potential to really scale, personalize and customize communications in a way that was never possible before. So how do we bring these two things together and really drive the impact?”

Past research that TalkingPoints undertook on its app use in a large urban school suggests that the approach can work, Lim says.

And other research has pointed to the importance of improving parent-teacher communication. For instance, a report from the Carnegie Corporation called engaging with immigrant families essential to students’ academic success.

“Given that students spend far more time at home and in the community than they do at school, building strong connections between diverse families and educators is essential to supporting student learning, especially as immigrants and children of immigrants are some of the fastest-growing populations in the country,” the report says.

What Does ‘Best Practices’ Mean?

One of TalkingPoints’ guiding principles is that opening up the lines of communication with parents — and what Lim calls “high-quality” communication that focuses on academics — ultimately benefits students. Those conversations should be centered on learning, generally keep a positive tone and start early in the year.

According to the analysis, only 31 percent of messages sent by educators and parents of secondary school students met those guidelines. At the elementary level, it was 19 percent.

The roots of the nonprofit were seeded when Lim was growing up in a London suburb, where her Korean immigrant mother worked hard to overcome the language barrier to ask teachers what she could do to support her daughter’s education. Other Korean parents who were likewise eager to help their children do well in class flocked to Lim’s mother to ask what teachers had said.

“My mom became like a parent spokesperson, interpreter, kind of a communications person for the school’s Korean parents, and that I think it really impacted my academic career trajectory and my sisters’ at the time,” Lim says.

It left an impression on Lim, how those parents separated from the school by language still sought ways to be involved.

“Later, I found out that family engagement truly has so much potential to drive and impact student outcomes — there’s a ton of academic research that shows this,” Lim explains. “But the blueprint of how to do that well, in terms of best practices, doesn’t quite exist, and families and schools face a lot of barriers in engaging and building relationships with each other in ways that can really support the student.”

In some cases, teachers may feel nervous or avoid interactions with parents, worried that it could be too time-consuming or contentious, Crystal Frommert, a middle school math teacher who wrote a book on the topic, told EdSurge in a podcast interview earlier this year.

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