Learnfare: Lessons for Student Cash Incentives?

By Debra Viadero — July 07, 2009 2 min read

Remember Learnfare? Created in Wisconsin in the 1980s, the program sought to boost school attendance by reducing families’ welfare checks when their teenage children missed too many days of school. Though controversial, the program put Wisconsin in the vanguard of the welfare-reform movement and spread to a number of other states. But at least two research evaluations of the Wisconsin program turned up little or no evidence that it actually improved school attendance.

In a new paper, however, Swarthmore College researcher Thomas S. Dee (shown below) revisits the most scientifically rigorous of those studies and reaches a different conclusion. He focuses on a

10-county study in which families receiving public assistance were randomly assigned to either the Learnfare restrictions or a business-as-usual condition. His analysis finds that the study was flawed because the random-assignment process in Milwaukee County actually wasn’t very random.

If you remove that county from the mix, he concludes, the program had a positive effect on students’ attendance, particularly for students who were already classified as dropouts when the study began. Their enrollment increased by 25 percent as a result of the program, according to Dee.

So why revisit all of this now, more than 20 years after the start of the program? Because Dee thinks Learnfare offers lessons for experimental programs going on today that offer students cash incentives for improved academic performance.

To Dee’s way of thinking, Learnfare is more in sync with the psychological research for a few reasons:
1) It rewards behavior rather than outcomes such as test scores.
2) Instead of offering a reward, it imposes sanctions on an endowment, thereby tapping into the psychological phenomenon known as “loss aversion.” (That refers to people’s preference for avoiding losses over acquiring gains.)
3) It involves a student’s entire family, much as the successful Progresa anti-poverty program does in Mexico. (See my story on this line of research in EdWeek.)

So here’s his idea:

An alternative way to exploit these design features would be to create an endowment for students at a chronically low-performing high school (e.g., a fixed cash scholarship) and then sanction that scholarship for attendance failures.

Dee figures that arrangement might mitigate some of Learnfare’s more harmful consequences for poor families, while staying true to the program’s goals. With scholarships, even the families of students who eventually dropped out would be at least a little better off than they might have been had the program not existed at all.

Provocative thought, isn’t it? Let’s hear what you have to say. Dee has posted the full study on his Web site. The working paper is also due to be posted in the next week or two on the Web site for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.