Working to better understand the relationship between student effort and parental investments

Eric Richert summarizes his essay, “Estimating an Effort Coordination Game Between Parents and Their Children,” which was a co-winner of the 2016 Scarthingmoor Prize for best MA essay in economics. Eric is currently a PhD student in the Queen’s Economics Department. 

By Eric Richert, Queen’s University

Student learning typically requires effort provision by parents, teachers, and students.  However, the early education literature all too often ignores student effort focusing only on the effort of parents and teachers. The effort decision of the child is often excluded from the optimization problem that is solved by the parent, or is a decision made by the parent.   The traditional model strangely ignores the child’s decisions. This assumption may make sense in early childhood but is less believable as students move into high school and beyond, where they are able to make their own decisions.

In my research, I examine the effects of allowing children to make their own decisions regarding the amount of effort they put into their studies.

Of course this choice is not independent of the amount of effort provided by their parents. The intuition is that if parents contribute a lot of effort; assisting their child in completing their homework and providing additional enriching opportunities in music, sports or further tutoring; then it will be very productive for the student to put in additional effort.  This allows them to realize more of their potential, but whether they decide to do so also depends on their preferences and abilities. The same reasoning holds true in reverse; if the student is working hard on their own, there will be large returns to a parent providing a little bit of additional effort. The important difference in this set up is that the parent and the child attach a different value to educational achievement, and have different capabilities to achieve that value.   For this reason I set up the effort choice of parents and students as a coordination game.

If we considered a model where only parents choose, then the differences and interactions between the parent and child are missed. In my model, we are able to separately consider the role of parents and students preferences for education and abilities, such that the impact of policies that target just one of these attributes can be evaluated. In this framework we can now consider a policy that makes school more enjoyable, which could be viewed as increasing the student preferences for education. With parameters estimated using data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study, I find that an increase of one standard deviation in student preferences for the average student results in approximately 1.1 hours more of study time a week and 0.15 hours more a week for the average parent, which together could produce significant long run impacts on educational achievement.

The results from this essay also indicate that the most effective input for policy to target is past scores of the student. Students with a high past score are more productive when they work today, and chose to work substantially more. With the estimated parameters, I found that an increase of one standard deviation in their past score leads the average student to decide to work 1.6 hours more a week, and for the average parent to decide to help their student 0.7 hours more a week.

One could also consider, a policy such as a tax credit for extracurricular lessons, which would reduce their cost and could be seen as an increase in parental ability in the model. The problem with the data in the National Educational Longitudinal Study is that I am unable to separately measure the parental preference and parental ability. Therefore, parental preferences are fixed and so the interpretation of the variation in such a policy is still difficult to assess. Using the estimates, an increase in parental ability decreases the productivity of student effort, which we may think of as the student counting on the parent to do things for them. However, the missing variation in parental preferences likely hides the exact effects here and this result should be used with caution. Given the estimates the increase in parental ability acts to lower the number of hours a student decides to study.

It is very important to consider the child and the parent as separate decision makers who interact together. Doing so allows for a more complete understanding of how policy changes would impact the amount of effort parents and their children chose to contribute and how that change can carry through into improved learning outcomes.

Photo from Queen’s Asset Bank.