New Federal Study Finds that Text Messages to Parents Can Reduce Chronic School Absences in Elementary School

American Institutes for Research Conducts Study of Adaptive Messaging Strategy

Washington, D.C. – Chronic absenteeism from school is a widespread challenge in education that is associated with far-reaching consequences for students of all ages, including lower test scores and higher incidences of dropping out. Schools and districts across the U.S. are looking for effective programs that can improve attendance and increase a student’s chances of success.

A new federally funded report from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) suggests that texting parents may be an effective way to reduce chronic absence in elementary school. The study tested a messaging strategy that started with basic messages, and then “adapted” to provide additional intensified messaging for families whose children had more absences. The evaluation found that the adaptive messaging strategy improved attendance for all students, with the largest reductions in chronic absence for students who had a prior history of high absences.

“Texting has been an effective strategy for changing behaviors in public health and other areas of society, but is still emerging as a way to improve outcomes in education,” said Jessica Heppen, senior vice president at AIR and the lead author of the report. “Our research shows that text messages can be an effective and low-cost way for schools to confront the challenge of chronic absenteeism among its youngest students.”

The evaluation was funded by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance in the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the independent research and statistics arm of the U.S. Department of Education. The project was conducted by AIR in partnership with the University of Chicago, North Carolina State University, and 2M Research Services.

It should be noted that this evaluation was conducted prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Education’s response to COVID-19—including a switch to virtual learning—has changed the meaning of attendance in many ways and AIR is considering changes to its text message bank to help districts and parents address attendance issues in this new context.

About the Study

The study was conducted during the 2017-18 school year at 108 elementary schools in four large, urban districts with an overall prior year chronic absence rate of 20%. Chronic absence was defined as a student missing at least 10% of instructional days. Results for more than 23,000 students were included in the analysis.

Students were randomly assigned to either a messaging group, where parents and guardians were sent attendance text messages, or a control group that received no messages. Among the messaging group, parents and guardians received one of two types of ‘basic’ messages during the first half of the school year (October to December 2017). One type of basic message emphasized the benefits of consistent attendance and the other type emphasized the consequences of missing school. The basic messages included weekly reminders to parents and same-day texts when their child was absent.  

Starting in January 2018, the parents of students who missed at least 8% of instructional days during the first half of the year received one of two types of intensified messaging: either direct messages from a member of the school staff or a more automated approach that emphasized goal-setting.

The study used a Sequential, Multiple Assignment, Randomized Trial (SMART) design to rigorously examine the effectiveness of the different versions of the adaptive messaging strategy and to identify specific components of the messaging approaches that worked best. (Learn more about SMART design in this IES publication.)

Study Findings

The researchers sought to determine whether text messages helped reduce chronic absenteeism, especially among students who had a prior history of high absences. They also studied the effectiveness of the different types of basic and intensified messaging and whether the messaging strategy had an impact on student achievement. Among the findings:

  • All versions of the adaptive text messaging strategy reduced chronic absence. The messaging lowered the expected chronic absence rate of 20.5% for students overall by 2.4 to 3.6 percentage points. For students with a prior history of high absence, the messaging lowered the expected chronic absence rate of 47.1% by 3.5 to 7.3 percentage points.
  • The two approaches to basic messaging were similarly effective at reducing chronic absence. Both types of messages—those that focused on benefits, as well as those that focused on consequences—reduced chronic reduced chronic absence rates in the first half of the school year.  
  • For intensified messaging, texts from school staff were more effective in reducing chronic absences. The chronic absence rate in the spring was lower for students whose parents received direct outreach from staff compared to those whose parents received goal-setting messages, particularly for students with a history of high absences.
  • The text messaging strategy did not have an impact on student achievement. Reading and math achievement of students in Grades 3 through 5 was similar for students whose parents did and did not receive text messages during the year of the study. It is possible that improved learning, facilitated by an increase in instructional time, takes longer and could be observed after a longer period of messaging.
  • The costs of text messaging are low, compared to other attendance programs. The different versions of the adaptive messaging strategy ranged in cost from $6.90 to $8.53 per student, which is substantially lower than other programs that seek to reduce chronic absences.

The report, Can Texting Parents Improve Attendance in Elementary School? A Test of an Adaptive Messaging Strategy, was co-authored by Heppen and AIR researchers Anja Kurki and Seth Brown.

View the full report on the IES website, as well as a one-page summary of the report:

About AIR
Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of education, health and the workforce. For more information, visit