Should We Pay Kids To Go to School?

Posted by Nikhil Swaminathan

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The days of "learning to love learning" may be behind us. These days, education reformers are coalescing around a kitchen sink approach to turning around failing schools, sagging graduation rates, and students who lag behind their international peers. As Michelle Rhee said this past weekend on This Week with Christiane Amanpour, there is no "one-shot, silver-bullet solution."

One of the ideas kicking around is cash incentives for both students and parents.

In St. Louis, a neighborhood school competing against charters and magnets, needing to boost its enrollment as much as its test scores, is offering $300 per child per semester to parents who send it their kids there (provided the student has exemplary attendance and that the parent attends three parent-teacher meetings). As noted on a recent post on Slate's doubleX blog, Houston pays some fifth graders for scoring well on a math test, and Detroit encourages parental involvement by incentivizing moms and dads to attend parent-teacher conferences.

Time magazine ran a piece in April detailing a large study of four cities' experiences with incentive programs run by Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist who runs an education innovation lab. In New York, students could earn up to $50 for their performance on 10 tests given throughout the school year. In Chicago, students earned money tied to their grades, netting $50 for an A, $35 for a B, and $20 for a C. (The money would go into an account that the student couldn't access until high school graduation.) In Washington, D.C., there was cash offered to middle schoolers for both scores on standardized tests, as well as attendance and good behavior in class. In Dallas, incentives were only offered for one young group of kids: second graders, who could earn $2 for each book they read. 

And now for some results: New York students receiving money did no better on their tests. Students in Chicago also did no better on standardized tests, but they had better attendance and higher grades than unpaid kids. In D.C., incentivized students showed marked improvement on reading tests, as did the second graders in Dallas.

Why the disparity between systems?

One clue came out of the interviews Fryer's team conducted with students in New York City. The students were universally excited about the money, and they wanted to earn more. They just didn't seem to know how. When researchers asked them how they could raise their scores, the kids mentioned test-taking strategies like reading the questions more carefully. But they didn't talk about the substantive work that leads to learning. "No one said they were going to stay after class and talk to the teacher," Fryer says. "Not one."
From that study, the evidence seems to point toward incentivizing basic behaviors that kids and their parents control: actually going to school, not bullying anyone, paying attention in class, etc. Rather than tying these monies to grades and test scores, by encouraging a better relationship between a student and his or her school or encouraging a student to read more, in general, seems to be a more effective method. So, in some cases, "yes," we should pay students (or their parents) to go to school—even though more experimentation like Fryer's needs to be done to get the exact right formula for incentives.
 
Fryer's study got me thinking: If the best way to nudge kids to perform better at school by acting on their attendance and on-campus behavior (rather than incentivizing test scores), shouldn't we look at teacher incentives the same way? Rather than attaching performance pay to test scores, why not look hard at something like Denver's ProComp system, which in part boosts teacher pay for work they do to make themselves better teachers, such as taking professional development courses? 
 
Photo via Emily Rasinski for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.