Pay for grades — does it work?

Nearly $1 million in private funds was paid out to 1,161 New York City students yesterday for scoring well on Advanced Placement exams. Still, the number who passed declined slightly:

Students involved in the program, financed with $2 million in private donations and aimed at closing a racial gap in Advanced Placement results, posted more 5’s, the highest possible score. That rise, however, was overshadowed by a decline in the number of 4’s and 3’s. Three is the minimum passing score. [...]

The organizers and underwriters of the program said they were encouraged by the increase in test-takers and student survey results. They said they never expected to see significant change in the first year, noting that the program was announced after the school year was under way and students had signed up for Advanced Placement classes.

Roland G. Fryer, the city’s chief equality officer, runs the program. It also pays students prizes of up to $50 per test for taking and passing other standardized tests. In another, middle school students are rewarded with cellphone minutes for good behavior, attendance and homework along with test scores.

Programs like Fryer’s are being tried across the country. The big question is do they work? There have been only a few studies. Results have been mixed. A new study that’s being watched closely examines the 12-year-old program in Texas. It finds that rewarding students for doing well on tough tests can work:

The research, by C. Kirabo Jackson, an economics professor at Cornell University, found that over time, more students took Advanced Placement courses and tests, and that more graduating seniors attended college. Most of the gains came from minority students in the 40 high schools studied, accounting for about 70,000 students in all. [...]

But exactly how much the cash incentives contributed to the improvements remains unclear. Teachers in these districts received additional training and bonuses of up to $10,000 when their students scored well. So it’s inconclusive whether paying the students, rewarding the teachers or a combination of these led to the improved test scores.

A critic notes:

“If we are going to invest, why don’t we invest in something that we know does work, like reducing class size or extended learning time?” asks Pedro Noguera, a New York University sociology professor, who is critical of cash-incentive programs. Many students have trouble learning because they “are just not going to good schools, and no incentive is going to fix that,” he says.

Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, initially expressed cautious support for the NYC program. He’s not happy with the results:

“I’m just dumbfounded that they can regard this as an achievement or as a great improvement or as something worth spending the money on… I’m surprised that that kind of money, that kind of incentives, doesn’t produce better results. It sort of undercuts the argument that the problem is the question of motivation.”

Stern has a very interesting piece right now in City Journal calling for a Marshall Plan for Reading in New York City schools. In it he calls Fryer’s efforts “quixotic” and says:

Reading problems…are at the core of the black-white achievement gap. Reading is the motor of all education—the basic skill that leads to all other academic skills. Disadvantaged kids who can’t read adequately by fourth grade aren’t as likely to understand math problems, science and social studies texts, computer manuals, or much else. They’re almost doomed to falling further and further behind in their later school years. At that point, remediation is probably too late. The only way for them to avoid the fate described in Fryer’s research, in my view, is for the city to undertake a massive reading intervention, targeting very young inner-city black children.

He goes on to critique of NYC schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s emphasis on market-style accountability reforms — “one can easily imagine a scenario in which the market incentives raise average test scores for the system’s 1,400 schools while the black-white test-score gap in the early grades grows even wider” — and calls for an emphasis on phonics-based reading programs with strong track records.

I am persuaded by Stern’s arguments, while also believing that it’s worth continuing to explore “pay for grades” incentive programs.

4 Comments

  1. Gee, in my day we had a 'pay for grades' incentive program but it worked a bit differently. The reward for working hard and learning was to earn a diploma, earn entrance into a good college, and possibly merit scholarships.

  2. Nowadays a bribe is seen as useful, if not the development of a future kind of entitlement.

  3. Also, one year in grade school, our class was exposed year round to money, and it included an incentive, but was in no way done out of desperation or out of warped morality. In fifth grade we were all given checkbooks to keep in balance and given a small amount of pay weekly or bi-weekly, along with “bills” we had to pay. There was no reason to wait for high school to expose us to the real world and thinking about money and arithmetic (and accounting). The incentives were there, too. Anyone who did especially well on something was given a reward, whereas (the kind of thing you'd never see in today's PC-laced environment in schools, because it is negative), students who misbehaved didn't get demerits, such as in junior or senior high school, but had to pay _fines_. To be able to enjoy this or that special activity, we had to “pay” for it out of our “accounts.” To keep us kids future-oriented and to (perish the thought now) get us to defer gratification, we had a commitment through the year that at the end of the year, those of us who had saved so many dollars in our “accounts” would be able to afford to pay for — a class field trip to a big-league baseball game at the end of the year.

    That's a lot more instructive as well as better than bribing kids who should know better.

  4. There are many problems that might arise from using money as a motivator:

    Kids might bully and threaten other kids to do their homework, to make money. kids may try and “work” or even threaten teachers when money is involved. When we're talking in the thousands of dollars, who's to say that kids and teachers won't be in cahouts? If the teacher gives a better grade, the kid might actually pay the teacher off. That's teaching kids “fraud.” In some situations a child might go home and get physically or verbally abused for not getting certain grades because the parents have now actually become partially dependent on that “grade money” as a source of income.

    It all sounds extreme, but not too long ago “paying for grades” sounded extreme and so did “shootings in schools.” (For that matter, so did “paying for water.”)

    The rest of this comment can be found at (can't post whole thing here for copyright reasons):

    http://www.helium.com/items/1255293

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