As a teacher in Harlem, Peter Bergman, like some of his peers, wondered what he could do to help students show up to class or do their homework on time. That led him to his current career in academia, where much of his research focuses on how sending “nudges,” or periodic reminders, to parents and students can improve academic outcomes.
Initially, to conduct his studies, he typed out text messages by hand: “Your child has missed class two times this week.” “Your child has three missing assignments.” The idea was to see whether such personalized notifications could spur parents to play a more active role in their child’s schooling.
What he found was that the right messages, delivered at the right time, can boost attendance and reduce course failure, as results published in The Journal of Human Resources in 2019 showed.
Around that time, Bergman decided to build his own messaging technology to support his research. Along with a software engineer, he started a nonprofit, EdNudge, to build tools that would help schools deliver personalized nudges to students and parents via text automatically.
But as he started fundraising from foundations to build a team, Bergman realized that embarking on a new career wasn’t what he was looking for.
“I want to see this built, but I don’t want to run a company,” Bergman tells EdSurge. “It’s not my expertise, nor would it make sense for me to devote a lot of time to this.”
This week, Bergman’s efforts have found a new home in AllHere, an education technology startup that is acquiring the technology assets of EdNudge.
Based in Boston, AllHere has developed tools to help schools track and improve student attendance. Its founder and CEO, Joanna Smith, says “there is a lot of natural synergy between [Bergman’s] work on low-cost, scalable interventions and our goal to improve student engagement and attendance.”
Bergman will support AllHere in an advisory role, which he says better suits his interests. The company already has a technology platform and, more importantly, school customers, which will help deliver his text nudges at scale. And it will let him test and refine other ideas for interventions to support students. In other words, he gets to keep being a researcher.
“We want to scale evidence-based interventions that have been shown to be effective from research,” says Bergman. He has partnered with other edtech companies on research projects, and he says he first met Smith about two years ago.
Founded in 2015, AllHere works with about 1,100 schools. Its attendance management tool helps school leaders identify and understand the causes of student absenteeism—and direct families to resources offered by the district or local community. That mission is largely informed by the experiences of Smith, who previously worked as a family engagement director at a Boston charter school. The company recently raised $3.5 million in seed capital to fund that effort.
“This acquisition is a very critical building block to scaling the kinds of low-cost interventions that can help families engage students to learn every day,” says Smith. She did not disclose the price of the deal but said it wasn’t much, considering that the transaction only involved EdNudge’s technology and the nonprofit’s only other partner, Chris Whiteley, who is now director of engineering at AllHere.
A Nudge to Remember
In an age when mobile apps and devices send alerts for just about anything, the idea of sending updates via SMS hardly seems radical. If anything, notification overload makes it easier to dismiss these messages, like a digital version of crying wolf.
But Bergman’s published findings suggest that the right mix of simplicity and personalization in such alerts can make a difference when it comes to improving student outcomes.
In the aforementioned 2019 study, Bergman and his co-author found that sending parents weekly text messages about students’ absences and missing assignments, and a monthly warning about failing grades, improved high school students’ grade-point averages by 0.17, and attendance by 12 percent. Course failures dipped by 28 percent.
In another study, to be published in the Journal of Political Economy, Bergman found that sending parents automated text updates about their child’s performance can be less costly for districts than other successful student intervention efforts studied by researchers.
For instance, if teachers were paid to manually gather student information and send messages to parents, “the total cost per child per .10 standard-deviation increase in GPA or math scores would be $156” per student per year, based on average teacher overtime pay and the amount of time this effort would take, he wrote.
By contrast, using an automated tool that can pull student information from a digital gradebook, and send a text through a SMS service like Twilio, could have a similar impact for less than $10 per student, according to Bergman.
When Bergman started looking into this topic in 2010, “there was a lot of existing research about the effectiveness of parent engagement. There were studies on home visits and other interventions that showed clear benefits,” he says. But what his research has found is that “resolving information asymmetry and information gaps through text messaging was a lower-cost way to improve outcomes and engage parents.”
Bergman is hardly alone in coming upon that realization. Colleges already send “nudges” and “early-warning alerts” in an effort to boost student retention rates and reduce dropout rates. But sometimes these efforts backfire. Enthusiasm for these approaches is rooted in a belief that combining behavioral science research and predictive-analytics technology can motivate families and students to course correct before it is too late.
Of course, school districts have also long sent automated voicemails and emails to parents. So what makes some messages more effective than others?
Bergman says he has learned that messages should include specific information about each student’s situation, and include immediate actions that parents can take—all while being concise. And these notifications have to be delivered in a timely manner that allows families time to make changes before it’s too late (in other words, before grades are already turned in).
It’s a delicate balance, and Bergman acknowledges he hasn’t quite found the perfect formula. The notifications about missing assignments and bad grades that he’s used in pilots with dozens of school districts from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. convey a punitive tone. “They’re pretty negative and, honestly, pretty depressing,” he says.
Citing a study about the impact of positive messaging in teacher-to-parent communication, published by researchers at Brown and Harvard Universities, Bergman says “one of the areas we’d like to expand on is complementing our messages with something reinforcing and reaffirming.”
Smith, of AllHere, is game to test and experiment. “Our goal is to deliver text messages that are actionable and relevant to the needs of each student, and to do this in a labor- and cost-effective way.”
“EdNudge has done all the research,” Smith adds. “Now it’s our job to scale and sell it.”