With every fall comes a new crop of plans for getting students to achieve and a fresh new hope that those plans will actually succeed. There’s what parents do on an individual level, of course-setting up homework stations, laying in a stock of fresh paper and pencils-and there’s what the schools and school districts do, much of which takes place in schools where many students’ families give less thought to how and where schoolwork gets done. In some of the much-watched “lowest-ranking” schools in various urban areas, those plans take the form of financial incentives for various behaviors expected to lead to greater school success. In Houston , they’re paying fifth-graders to pass math tests that show they’ve mastered core concepts and paying parents to attend conferences about their students’ progress. In Detroit , parents can earn money toward a child’s college account by attending events like Open House and parent-teacher conferences. In Washington, D.C., students were paid last year for attendance, behavior, and academic performance; and chancellor Michelle Rhee sought money to continue the program this year. Many people have a gut reaction to these programs, and it goes something like “why should we pay people to do something I already did for free?”
That basic, underlying fairness wail is generally disguised under more well-meaning reasoning: We shouldn’t pay kids or parents for something that it’s their responsibility to do anyway. You can’t pay a child to try harder or love learning, and some studies show that payment, or any reward, actually decreases interest or motivation. It might not work, and it’s a misuse of taxpayer money.
But there are larger arguments to be made in favor of experimenting with this approach. Look at the scores, graduation rates, and other measures of the so-called “failing schools,” and it’s clear that any intrinsic motivation or love of learning isn’t working for many students. And I think we can all agree that students in schools that score better, and appear to turn out higher-achieving graduates, are encouraged by a variety of factors, like pleasing involved parents, competing with motivated classmates, and fitting into their communities. If those incentives aren’t present, it’s worth investigating whether they can be replaced with financial motivation until students are able to see that there’s something to be gained here besides short-term cash. With that in mind, it’s interesting to look back at the relatively few programs there have been like these in the past to see what’s been successful, as Time did last spring. Paying kids for things that are within their control, yet have been shown to be related to better performance (like attendance and behavior), works better than paying them for results. Paying young kids for a very specific activity worked best of all the financial motivators Time looked at (all of which were created by Roland Fryer Jr. and Harvard’s Education Innovation Laboratory): giving second graders $2 a book over the course of a year led to increased reading-comprehension scores that were still reflected in the next year’s testing of the same students, a gain comparable to far more expensive initiatives like Head Start programs and reducing class size. Houston’s math program, which offers payments for small and achievable gains, is modeled on that success.
If certain behaviors increase learning, why not look for innovative ways to encourage those behaviors? Parental involvement is another known factor in encouraging kids’ success in schools, which means paying parents to participate may also make sense (although I suspect that giving them that money only toward their kids’ college education will self-select in favor of parents who were already willing participants). The biggest complaint regarding these financial incentive programs is that the gains will disappear along with the cash, but that remains to be seen. It’s worth continuing to experiment as we find out.
Photograph of classroom by Kafchaser .