Successful UChicago-run education program to be mirrored at United Kingdom schools

Parents in the United Kingdom will learn how to become partners in their children’s learning and potentially improve the youngsters’ school performance in an initiative that mirrors a successful University of Chicago project.

Beginning in the fall of 2014, parents in two diverse communities in the UK, one in London and another in Middlesbrough in the northern part of the country, will attend 90-minute sessions every two weeks at Parent Academies to learn how to be more helpful as the students learn mathematics, reading, science and other subjects. The academies will be financed with a £990,000 ($1.6 million) grant from the Education Endowment Foundation, which is supported by funds from the British government.

The impact of the academies will be measured against the outcomes of similar students whose parents do not receive the support. The project is part of ongoing University of Chicago research that uses field experiments to improve school achievement.

“Schools should be centers of innovation. By using scientific approaches to determine what works best, we can learn what we should do to improve student learning,” said John List, the Homer J. Livingston Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. List organized a similar project in suburban Chicago, which has shown improved achievement among students when their parents from disadvantaged backgrounds are encouraged to become involved in their learning activities.

The University of Chicago program focuses on parents of pre-kindergarten students at the Early Childhood Center in Chicago Heights. Parents in its Parent Academies attend meetings and consult regularly with teachers to learn how they can improve their children’s cognitive and non-cognitive learning. The Griffin Foundation in Chicago supports the program.

The early childhood program in Chicago Heights has produced remarkable results for students enrolled for just 10 months, List said. Many students in the program have gained 18 months in literacy understanding—doubling the average rate for a preschool-aged child. 

They also tested at the national average for non-cognitive, or executive function, skills such as self-control, he reported in the recently published book, The Why Axis, Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life, which he wrote with Uri Gneezy, economics professor at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego.

Robert Metcalfe, a UChicago postdoctoral scholar and a recent research fellow in economics at the University of Oxford, helped arrange the connection with the UK schools. Metcalfe and List are specialists in using field experiments as part of their work in economics.

“Many of the students in the study group in the UK are disadvantaged as are the US students. Their educational opportunities are largely determined by tests they take at age 11,” said Metcalfe. If successful, the Parent Academies will help more students go further with their schooling, he said.

UK aims to build on parents' hopes for their children

“Parents want to help their children succeed at school and the evidence is clear that high parental involvement is associated with improved outcomes. However, parents don’t always know the best way to get involved, and schools often aren’t sure how to work with them,” said Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation.

“This project is about equipping parents with the skills and understanding of the curriculum they need to support their children. We want to build on the evidence from previous trials in the United States to find out whether this approach can make a difference in English primary schools,” he added.

The study will be conducted at Camden Council in London and Middlesbrough Council in northeast England with parents of children ages 7 to 11—years three through six in the British school system.

The parents in the councils will be selected randomly to be in one of three groups: a group of 750 that attends the Parent Academies, a group of 650 that receive financial incentives to attend the academies, and a group of 1,600 that continues to engage as usual with the schools with attending academies. The performance of the children will also be measured.

Connecting parents to curriculum is key

The coursework of the academies will reflect what the students are learning in school as the parents learn how to help students with their lessons. In addition to being taught about child development, parents will explore topics such as:

• How can oral language and listening skills be fostered in the home?

• How can I instil a love of math (even if I do not love math myself)?

• What do students learn about numbers and algebra, and what should they be able to do? Why is spatial thinking so important?

• What is scientific inquiry?

• How is having books and fostering a reading environment related to your child’s success in school and beyond?

“We are really pleased that the EEF have given the green light to this project,” said Andrea Williams, head teacher at the Abingdon Primary School in Middlesbrough.

“Our parents often have high aspirations for their children and the children themselves are very keen to learn, but life experiences are often very limited, books and educational resources are found infrequently in homes and family skills in basic skills can be very low,” she said. “The Chicago Heights project seemed to face very similar challenges for parents with positive results for both parents and children, results which we hope will be replicated in both the north and south of England.”