Dynarski highlights behavioral ‘nudges’ that can lessen education disparities in NYT Upshot column

January 20, 2015

Vast inequalities currently exist in the U.S. education system – there is little debate among experts on this issue. And while it’s the ambitious system-level reform proposals that garner widespread attention, several seemingly simple solutions--small behavioral nudges--have been found to lessen disparities.

Susan Dynarski highlighted several of these behavioral nudges in a post on The Upshot, a New York Times-curated blog. Her column, “Helping the poor in education: The power of a simple nudge,” was published Saturday, Jan. 17 and was among the most emailed articles of the day. 

Several of the effective innovations noted by Dynarski utilize text-messaging programs. In one study, community college students who received text messages reminding them to complete re-enrollment forms were 14 percent more likely to complete their sophomore year than students who didn’t receive the texts.

In another, homework completion rates and test scores were increased among middle and high school students whose parents were sent text messages when their children failed to hand in homework assignments. Parents who received text messages were also twice as likely to reach out to their children’s teachers.

Dynarski acknowledged that simple, cheap interventions (such as text messages) won’t help everyone, nor should they be expected to. But they will help some students, which will free up time and resources for those who need additional, more extensive assistance.

“These light nudges can’t solve every problem, by a long shot,” she says. “But at a low cost, they can help many students.”

Susan Dynarski is a professor of public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and a professor of education at the University of Michigan's School of Education. She is co-founder and co-director of the Ford School’s Education Policy Initiative, which engages in applied, policy-relevant research designed to improve overall educational achievement and outcomes.

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