Curry Researcher’s Book Offers Low-Cost Strategies for Boosting Education

Benjamin Castleman, assistant professor of education and public policy in UVA’s Curry School of Education, offers advice for low-cost methods to boost educational achievement in his new book.
November 09, 2015

Can a text message help assuage the phenomenon of “summer melt,” when students, mostly lower on the socio-economic spectrum, fail to enroll in college even after they have been accepted?

Benjamin Castleman says yes.

In his new book, “The 160-Character Solution,” Castleman, an assistant professor of education and public policy in the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, said the lowly text is a simple, but wonderfully effective, way to break through all of the other demands on high school seniors’ attention – things like studying, extracurricular activities, social life, family obligations and perhaps work.

That’s one example of many simple strategies the book suggests for boosting students’ educational achievements, starting well before children enter their first classroom.

Inbound college students have a long to-do list that kicks in before they ever set foot on campus, and the choices they must make can be daunting.

“We are all balancing a million things,” Castleman said. “How many times have you gotten a bill in the mail that you haven’t paid – not because you don’t want to, but because you haven’t gotten around to it given everything else that is going on?

“Sending a text takes a task and puts it at the top of the mind. That reminder brings it to the surface.”


What is it about a text that makes it so effective? Simplicity, Castleman said.

“It’s not like an email or a letter, where I could just go on and on. Until very recently, we were constrained to 160 characters per text,” he said. “Now, you can look at your phone, digest that text in a matter of a second, and have a clear sense of what you are supposed to do.”

Castleman said another reason texting is effective is that it is, by default, a push notification and for a moment in time, each text stands out as its own piece of content. “When we are on Facebook or Twitter, we are bombarded with all kinds of information. With texting, if we have a question, we write back,” he said. “We don’t have to pick up the phone or go to the school or find someone’s email address. It’s as simple as writing back and routing the question to someone who can help.”

The options for distraction are growing every day. A new census from Common Sense Media found the average teen spends nine hours of his or her day consuming media – and that is in addition to academic demands. Castleman says to be effective, you have to meet teens where they are.

Too Much Noise

He said the challenge of information saturation is enormous. Castleman gave the example of a recent visit to Chick-Fil-A with his children, where he said 70 percent of the people in line were looking at their phones.

Though the lunch menu listed caloric information meant to help customers make healthier choices, “If I’m standing in line, the whole time looking at my phone, and I get ready to make my order, I’m going to look at the picture and order based on that,” he said. “I’m not going to look at the calorie options because I’ve got so much demanding my attention on my phone.”

Castleman said school choice, seeking federal financial aid and even choosing a doctor are incredibly complex decisions that can compel people to delay decisions or simply mimic what their neighbor is doing.

In addition to electronic nudges for college-bound seniors, “The 160-Character Solution” offers other behavioral strategies to help students and parents make the best educational choices possible, beginning at the earliest levels of education.

Take pre-kindergarten reading preparation for lower-income children. Measures show their higher-income counterparts have heard millions more words by the time they enter elementary school. Castleman’s question was how to reach parents in the lower-income category and give them some examples of things they could do in the span of a few minutes to better prepare their children.

The common denominator in both sets of families is doctor visits. “That is an opportunity for a physician, of course, to make sure the child is healthy, but to also show a parent things they can do at home to help prepare a child to read,” Castleman said.

He said the programs that have employed this tactic – advising parents to sing the ABCs with their child, or playing letter games – have had substantial improvements in the cognitive performance and pre-literacy skills of children.

Castleman said low-cost, scalable solutions like texting high school seniors and enhanced doctor visits for preschoolers have proved effective in leading to substantial improvements in education.

“If our argument is ‘We need to spend more money to move the needle,’ that’s always going to be a hard sell,” he said.

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications