Education Opinion

But What About Return on Investment?

By Susan Graham — March 29, 2009 5 min read
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DC schools’ Capital Gains program is in the news again. In fifteen District of Columbia schools 6th, 7th, and 8th graders are being paid for performance. While some factors are consistent in all schools, there is some variation, but every school includes attendance, behavior, and, in some form, grades. Uniforms are a criteria in nine of the schools, and service is a factor at one school. Students earn up to $10 a day, or $100 every two weeks, for meeting expectations in each area. It would appear that the formula is $2 for each of the target goals.

The Capital Gains program is a shared initiative of DC Schools and the Harvard’s Education Innovation Laboratory (EdLabs). Certainly EdLab and its partners are not the only proponents of monetary incentives for school performance, but they have received a great deal of attention lately. Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of District of Columbia Schools, says:

We are honored to be a part of this cutting-edge institute. We believe that all children, regardless of background and circumstance, can achieve at the highest levels, and we want to ensure that our decisions at all levels are guided by the kind of robust data, analysis, and innovative thinking EdLabs will provide.

The EdLab stems from and supports the research of Dr. Roland Fryer, an impressive scholar and the youngest African American to be tenured by Harvard. Rising from a disadvantaged background himself, Fryer has become a leading expert on the correlation between economics and the African American experience. He has been willing to confront issues that many have been hesitant to address, including the persistent achievement gap for African American students. Education Innovation Laboratory website states:

To achieve excellence and equity, school districts must embrace bold innovation and objective measurement of their programs and practice...
We embrace untested and even “heretical” ideas and rigorously evaluate and re-evaluate everything we think we know about public education to understand what works, what doesn’t, and why. Our goal is to provide policy makers and practitioners with evidence based solutions.

The Creative Energy Team that provides EdLabs’ evidence-based solutions is made up of of eight professors of economics, one professor of psychology, the dean of the Harvard school of education, and a creative director who appears to be a highly acclaimed public relations/advertising manager. The four primary “heretical ideas” EdLab is currently embracing include three that offer some form of student pay for performance: Capital Gains in DC, Sparks in New York City Schools, and The Paper Project in Chicago City Schools. All of these are . The fourth, Million Motivation, which is being piloted in the NYC Schools, provides cell phones and students earn points for ringtones and downloads as incentives.

Maybe I just don’t have enough information, but........

I still don’t understand how economists became education experts. Granted we have issues in education for which educators have not found solutions, but economists might want to figure out where they went wrong on economics before they offer to fix education.

It seems unusual to find the terms “embracing,” “transformative,” “beliefs,” and “visions” included in the research strategy statement at the EdLab website. To me these words are more commonly associated with causes than objective research. But then, Fryer’s statement in reference to his incentive project,“I just thought that giving them some short-term incentives to do what’s in their long-term best interests would be a good way to go,” seems to hinge on personal opinion, not evidence. I didn’t expect Fryer to provide an in depth explanation during an interview with Stephen Colbert, but I thought I would find some mention of research that informs his theories at the EdLab website.

I am perplexed when I find a New York Times piece from 2005 indicating that “Fryer recently ran a pilot experiment with third graders at P.S. 70 in the Bronx…. Fryer is trying to find out whether the individual or group incentives work better. He suspects the latter -- ‘because no stigma of being the smartest kid applies.’ But the P.S. 70 data was inconclusive.” As a teacher, it seems to me that further research into group incentives could impact practice and yield gains in student learning with minimal investment in resources. So it seemed strange to desert that inquiry to pursue costly, controversial and complicated research on individual monetary incentives that would be difficult to sustain and almost impossible to implement on a large scale.

I was also surprised to discover that the shift to monetary incentive research appears to be the upshot of a dinner party where “Fryer met Joel Klein, the chancellor of New York’s public schools, and explained his project to him. Klein asked Fryer if he might be interested in expanding his incentive experiment into 15 or so low-achieving schools”. Apparently this was when the multimillion dollar program that offers $10 for a good benchmark test grade for 3rd graders and $20 to 7th graders in New York was conceived.

It puzzled me that Fryer felt he had to “sell” this program to school administrators, and that “The principals began to grill him. ….Fryer addressed each issue as best he could. But one question kept coming back at him: if we start paying students to test well, aren’t we sending the message that learning is not its own reward? Although the exchange flustered him, Fryer had by meeting’s end persuaded the principals to take part.” At such a meeting, shouldn’t he have had a convincing research review on hand to support the efficacy of monetary incentives? If these practitioners had serious concerns, wouldn’t that have been an indication that the project design might need to be tweaked before implementation?

Fryer says, that he “finds that others—in his field and outside it—do not always share his interest in following the data, no matter where the numbers lead: ‘Sometimes people have got this fixed idea, and they don’t care what data you bring to the table.’” Yes indeed.

I don’t think we will transform student learning by handing out money. In fact, I think it will create more problems than it solves. I wonder what will happen when the experiment is over because, in most cases, reward-based behaviors have not proven sustainable after the reward is withdrawn. I acknowledge that this is an opinion biased by my ethical beliefs and my personal experience. Even though I don’t know everything there is to know about motivating middle schoolers, I have over 20 years of professional experience, and I work at keeping my knowledge base current.

Still, I am open to new ideas and, along with EdLabs, I’m willing to “evaluate and re-valuate everything I think I know about public education to understand what works, what doesn’t, and why.”

Maybe paying middle school kids for showing up, behaving, passing tests and wearing a uniform will turn out to be the evidence-based solution that transforms public education. Maybe cash for grades will help children envision future success rather than immediate gratification. But embracing beliefs and envisioning is not enough. Parents, practitioners, policymakers, and the public should have ready access to the research that undergirds this project, the process by which data are collected and evaluated, and a the detailed plan for what comes next for the human subjects of this experiment in behavioral science.

Beliefs can be a powerful engine for change and certainly DC schools need to make some changes, but until the Capital Gains program can deliver some data to the table, my concern is whether the investment strategy is one of long term growth potential or short term gain that uses children as capital for portfolio building. This isn’t Wall Street and education isn’t a commodity to be bought and sold.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.