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Parents’ Beliefs about Their Children’s Academic Ability: Implications for Educational Investments

August 19, 2019

In 2011, the Russell Sage Foundation made a small grant from its Behavioral Economics program to support research on parents’ educational investments in their children. Rebecca Dizon-Ross (University of Chicago) used RSF support to conduct a field experiment in Malawi to assess whether parents, when given better access to information about their children’s educational performance, update their beliefs and adjust their investments. The study showed that parents, when given better information, are likely to increase the school enrollment of their higher-performing children, decrease the enrollment of lower-performing children, and choose educational inputs that are more closely matched to their children’s academic level. The study included more than 2,700 families. Average levels of parental education among the subjects were low, at an average of 4.7 years, and families were large, with an average of five children. 

While information about academic performance is readily available through school report cards, barriers such as literacy and limited education may make it difficult for some parents to read, understand, and interpret this information. Dizon-Ross found that parents’ beliefs about their children’s academic performance were inaccurate, with 30% of parents, when comparing two of their children, mistaken about which child was higher-performing. This resulted in misallocations of educational resources, for example, giving a child a textbook at an inappropriate academic level, or missing out on an opportunity to offer remedial resources to low-performing students or challenging material to advanced students. This problem of not being able to properly assess children’s’ academic performance was particularly pronounced among poor parents; less educated parents were more likely to update their beliefs about their children than more educated parents. 

The figure above shows that there is a large gap of about 20 percentage points between parents’ beliefs about their children’s academic performance and their true academic performance. It also shows that the gap between past academic performance and hypothetical future performance narrows for the treatment group who has clearer information about their children’s academic performance. Panels B and D in this figure indicate that providing clearer information about children’s academic performance allows parents to better align their beliefs about their children with their actual performance. 

Given a persistent achievement gap correlated with parents’ education and income levels, studies which show how poor and less educated parents can better access information to guide their educational investments in their children are crucial. It may be time to consider these kinds of interventions for disadvantaged parents and families in other parts of the world, including the United States. 

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