Mobilizing parents in developing countries to become more involved in their children’s education is likely to lead to better teaching and school management, as well as the ultimate objective of improved outcomes for pupils. This column explores how mobilization can best be achieved, including recent evidence on policy interventions in Angola. While household visits providing information to parents can increase parents’ involvement at home but have no impact on engagement at school, parent meetings at school have the opposite effect. After mobilizing parents, only the combination of all interventions improves teaching and school management.
Informing and mobilizing parents has the potential to improve educational quality through increased bottom-up pressure: as service recipients, parents are in the best position to monitor schools and it is in their best interest to do so. To this end, many interventions have been implemented in developing countries in recent years, typically giving parents information on schools’ (or children’s) relative performance and/or ways for them to participate in the broader monitoring of teachers or the education process.
The results of these interventions are mixed, with significant impacts observed when parents are able to transfer their children to a different school, are trained to hold reading camps outside of school on a voluntary basis, receive information about local capture of primary school funds, or are given power in the context of school boards.
While investigations of the impact of information alone tend to document null effects (for example, as observed recently in Kenya), it is challenging to reach conclusions about the effectiveness of this type of intervention, as the kinds of information and the ways in which information is conveyed differ greatly across studies.
In fact, the body of research on early childhood interventions, which often employs parent information and mobilization strategies, offers a number of positive results (see the recent results for India).
Moreover, a small but growing evidence base on interventions conducted in developed countries to increase parents’ participation in children’s education finds optimistic results. Examples include parent meetings in French middle schools in disadvantaged areas, which aim to train parents in ways to help their children perform better at school, monetary incentives provided to parents in Chicago schools to attend parent academy sessions, and information conducive to better practices at home conveyed through text messages in San Francisco.
In recent work in Angola, we assess the effectiveness of an information and mobilization intervention that incorporates most of the elements of the information interventions previously implemented in the education sector in developing countries, while also borrowing features from early childhood interventions.
Parents in randomly selected primary schools were shown scorecards comparing the performance of the local school based on several metrics –teachers’ education and absence rates, school infrastructure and management practices, as well as pupils’ test scores – relative to other schools in the area.
In addition, parents were shown comics depicting desirable behaviors of parents and children at home and at school – a novel feature of our information intervention (see the excerpt in Figure 1). Moreover, similar to early childhood development programs, this Information intervention was conveyed in the most intensive way possible – that is, through one-to-one interactions during repeated monthly household visits over more than a full academic year.
Figure 1. Excerpt of comics (English translation)
Note: The full version of the comics and the scorecard can be found on the project website.
We also asked whether similar results could be obtained by letting relevant information emerge and circulate endogenously among parents during meetings where no external information is provided. To this end, we evaluated a second Meetings intervention, conducted in another set of randomly selected schools, where we organized and facilitated parent meetings where participants were invited to raise concerns about their children’s schools and jointly discuss possible solutions.
Finally, in a third intervention we implemented a combination of the first two interventions.
Our results show no evidence of improvements in pupil performance. But our analysis of heterogeneous effects finds that the interventions did raise performance but only in schools that were overall better at baseline, suggesting that it may take more time for worse than average schools to see changes in parental involvement (at home or at school) translate into better education outcomes.
The limited effects on student learning, in comparison with the positive results of a report card intervention in Pakistan, can be explained by the fragile education market in rural Angola. There are few ‘outside options’ for parents to choose from, let alone private schools, which greatly limits the bargaining power of parents.
More importantly, we find that all interventions were effective in mobilizing parents. But the Information intervention only affected parental involvement at home (for example, likelihood to help with homework), whereas the Meetings intervention increased parental participation at school (for example, the presence of parent representatives in the school board.
The intervention that combined information and parent meetings affected both dimensions of parental involvement, while also improving school infrastructures and management, parents’ satisfaction with teachers, and teachers’ attitudes toward parents.
Our results suggest that to mobilize parents at school, providing information is not enough, even when it is very comprehensive. Facilitating parent meetings seems to be necessary for that purpose, possibly due to the need for parents to develop ties allowing them to overcome collective action problems.
Having parent meetings with an open agenda may do the job while being much cheaper to implement relative to scorecard interventions. But combining parent meetings with high intensity dissemination of information seems to be needed to achieve improvements in school management and teaching.
Vincenzo Di Maro is a Senior Economist at the Development Impact Evaluation (DIME) department of the World Bank. He leads the program in Governance and Institution Building, which studies development topics related to civil service reform, justice, public financial management and decentralization.
Stefan Leeffers is a PhD candidate in Economics at Nova School of Business and Economics, where he is also affiliated with the NOVAFRICA Center. His main topic of interest is behavioral development economics, with a focus on political economy related questions.
Danila Serra is an Associate Professor of Economics at Texas A&M University. She holds a PhD from Oxford University. Danila applies experimental methods to the study of corruption, the provision of public services, gender and education.
Pedro Vicente is a Full Professor of Economics at Nova School of Business and Economics, where he is also the founding scientific director of the NOVAFRICA Center. Pedro specializes in development economics and Africa.