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Commentary By Marcus A. Winters

Despite What You've Read, Paying Kids To Excel In School Does Work

Education, Cities Pre K-12, New York City

You may have heard that New York City’s controversial experiment with paying students to learn was a failure. What you may not have heard was that Harvard economist Roland Fryer’s new study actually shows that when performance incentives are structured properly - as they were in other cities - they yield enormous learning gains for students at a very low cost.

Under Gotham’s policy, students in participating schools earned cash for their performance on six math and reading assessments administered throughout the year. The payments were in no way tied to the state’s official math and reading exams. Fourth-graders could earn up to $250 and seventh-graders could get up to $500 annually.

Fryer used a “gold standard” design to study the program. Like a medical trial, the study randomly determined which schools were eligible for the program and which were not, thus assuring that students in the treatment and control groups were otherwise identical. Fryer found that at the end of the year, students eligible for performance incentives performed no better or worse than ineligible students on the state’s math and reading exam.

So, New York City is right to abandon its current performance incentive program. It doesn’t work. But New York City schoolkids would miss an enormous opportunity if the city discarded the performance incentive strategy altogether.

That’s because Fryer’s ambitious study also evaluated performance incentive plans in three other cities: Chicago, Washington and Dallas. In each of these cities, different sorts of performance incentives were offered to students, so that Fryer could evaluate whether the structure of performance incentives is related to their effectiveness. As in New York, Chicago’s program rewarded students for improving educational outcomes (classroom grades). Chicago’s policy was no more successful than New York’s.

But eligible students in Washington and Dallas received an entirely different sort of incentive. Rather than rewarding students for their learning outcomes, the programs in these cities paid students for engaging in behaviors related to learning. Washington’s kids earned cash for attendance, good conduct, wearing their school uniforms and doing their homework. Second-grade students in Dallas were offered $2 for every book that they could prove they read by passing a computer-based comprehensive quiz (there was a limit of 20 books per student).

Paying students to engage in constructive academic behavior proved remarkably effective. To put the results into context, paying students to read books had an impact on reading achievement equivalent to reducing class sizes by a third.

Why did the behavior-based programs work while the outcomes-based programs failed? The most likely reason for the difference is that students don’t entirely understand how to increase their own overall achievement. But even the youngest students can comprehend and respond to rewards for wearing a uniform or reading a book. These behaviors then translate into learning gains.

Fears that performance incentives would rob students of the love of learning appear to be unfounded. Students eligible for the policies performed just as well as ineligible students on a psychological exam measuring intrinsic motivation. Further, the positive results in Dallas carried over into the next year when students did not have a performance incentive (a second-year study could not be conducted in Washington).

Perhaps most impressive of all, the substantial benefits from behavior-based performance incentives come at a remarkably low price tag. Reducing class sizes enough for a chance of having any influence, for instance, costs many thousands of dollars per student. The maximum potential cost of Dallas’s program was $80 per student, and the program actually paid out only $13.81 to the average kid. Such inexpensive learning gains are always appealing, but they are particularly attractive in these times of fiscal strife.

So, let’s learn the right lesson here. New York City’s student incentive program did not work. But student performance incentives still could be one of the most exciting and effective education strategies available.

This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News

This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News