High School Incentivization: Should We Pay For Higher Grades?
By Mike Bleemer '13
The field of education policy research, like most policy fields, is very broad, spanning several departments of the College as well as departments not offered at this school, and inspiring a tremendous number of yearly books, articles and papers. One issue that’s drawn particular attention internationally over the past two decades has been teacher and student incentives: whether or not paying good teachers or good students bonuses for their achievements could increase long-term education. I’d like to focus on the work of a single researcher currently in the field, and what his findings could mean for public education over the coming decades.

Roland Fryer is a 33-year-old tenured economics professor at Harvard University, and head of the Education Innovation Laboratory at that university. His organization has led several well-funded studies over the past couple of years, in inner-city schools in New York, Boston, Dallas and Washington D.C. His results are fascinating.

Should we pay students for good grades? For regular attendance? For doing their homework? As a philosophy major, I’d be willing to discuss these questions ad infinitum with a willing fellow student, but in fact they are of a quantifiable nature: using the scientific method, it is actually determinable exactly in what way monetary incentives stimulate learning on a large scale. This is Fryer’s mission: rather than prove using words that these measures would be effective, he is attempting to show their effectiveness with action.

For instance, take his incentive program in New York City. Fourth grade students could earn as much as $250 per year, and seventh graders up to $500, for getting good grades on standardized math and reading exams given over the course of the school year: 10 in all, with a potential $50 waiting on the other end if you do a good job. Fryer’s organization awarded over a million dollars to students in the one-year life of the program; it’s currently in its second stage. And the result? Middling. Or worse: according to Time magazine in its April 8 article on Fryer, the program flat out “did not work,” not significantly raising end-of-year scores for participating students. Several hypotheses exist about why — the most reasonable probably being that students had extra incentive to perform well on the tests, but didn’t really know how to effectively improve their scores — but results are results, and so the scientific method yields its conclusion: the system doesn’t work. And so Fryer has to look elsewhere for ideas. Currently a second project is being used in New York City, called The Million Motivation Campaign. Students are given cell phones with features and minutes that can only be activated by good grades; teachers input attendance, grades and other student data into a computer program, which then awards students with phone time for good marks. Will it work? Only the future will tell.

Others of Fryer’s projects have had far more positive results. In fact, the best results thus far came from a much younger set of students: second-graders attending public school in Dallas, Texas. Students were given two dollars for each book they read, so long as they completed a short computer quiz to make sure that they’d actually read the book. The average payout per student was only $14 for the whole year, and, again according to Time, “paying second-graders to read books significantly boosted their reading comprehension scores on standardized tests at the end of the year — and those kids seemed to continue to do better the next year, even after the rewards stopped.”

Nevertheless, the funding dried up for the Dallas program the next year, and funding ceased.

Results in Chicago and Washington D.C. followed the same trend: pay for tangibles like attendance and number of books, things that students have completely in their own control and can change their behavior towards in simple but powerful ways, rather than trying to pay students based on grades. In many ways this mirrors and eludes the problem facing teacher incentivization, which requires schools to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers quantitatively; instead of trying to incentivize students by their ability to produce, Fryer tries to incentivize them to do the things that students need to do in order to produce: go to class, do your work and try. And his results have only trended towards improvement.

Do you have any ideas about student or teacher incentivization that you’d like to share? Email me at zbleemer13@amherst.edu, and join the discussion. I look forward to hearing from you.

Issue 09, Submitted 2010-11-17 00:20:53