Adults have long used rewards—or let’s face it, bribes—to prod children into doing what they want. But it wasn’t until the last decade that economists started looking earnestly at how educators could leverage incentives, such as gift cards, scholarship money, and in some cases cold hard cash, to motivate students to go to school and perform better on tests.
Much of that interest was driven by the higher demands for accountability that were ushered in by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2001 and since replaced by Congress.
With at least a decade of research now behind us, here’s what’s been learned about using incentives in education and how schools are deploying these ideas today.
What counts as an incentive?
Technically, anything that motivates a student to do something is an incentive. That could be as simple as putting a sticker on an aced quiz or rewarding perfect attendance with a new bike.
Researchers, however, typically focus on how financial incentives affect student behavior, and even that of teachers and parents.
What has the research on incentives in education found?
“This is something that every incentive paper starts with: the research is mixed,” said Lucrecia Santibañez, an associate professor at Claremont Graduate University’s School of Educational Studies.
That’s true both in the U.S. and internationally, she said. How well an incentive program works depends on its design.
One of the primary architects of this work is Roland Fryer, an economist at Harvard University. In a series of experiments through the mid-2000s, he paid out more than $6 million to more than 18,000 low-income students in Chicago, Dallas, New York City, and the District of Columbia to try to improve their test performance.
The major takeaway from Fryer’s research is that inducements are more likely to work if a program incentivizes things students feel they can control. In technical terms, that means rewarding inputs instead of outputs, said Jeffrey Livingston, an associate professor of economics at Bentley University. Students don’t necessarily know how to improve their test scores, so even if they’re motivated to try harder, that doesn’t mean they can actually do better.
“If the incentive is tied to the performance on the test, the effects are small if there at all,” said Livingston. “But if you tie it to the preparation for the test, the studying, like incentivizing reading a book or doing practice tests … that tends to have much bigger effects.”
Incentives are also more likely to work for students who only need a little improvement to earn a passing grade on a test.
“If you’re miles away from it, no matter how much effort you put in, the odds of reaching are still low, so why bother?” he said.
Why are incentives controversial?
Incentives have backfired for some schools.
In 2015, a New Jersey district came under fire from some parents when it announced plans to award gift cards to students for showing up to take the state’s new standardized tests. The aim was to increase participation rates in the PARCC exams, at a time when parents across the country were protesting the standardized tests by refusing to have their children participate.
There’s also a larger debate about making learning transactional, said Douglas Harris, professor of economics and the director of Education Research Alliance at Tulane University.
“If your goal is to instill a love of learning, paying students to read books doesn’t really do that,” he said. “It doesn’t reflect a view of teaching and learning that most educators support. They don’t want it to be transactional.”
How are schools using incentives?
Incentives vary as much as the schools that use them—from modest to massive.
The Union R-XI school district in central Missouri offered as much as $100 to students to entice perfect attendance at its summer school program.
Tennessee’s Shelby County district has offered Memphis Grizzlies tickets to students with good attendance. Success Academy, a charter school network, has offered small prizes, including Nerf guns, to encourage good behavior.
While the research may be mixed, some school officials say they are seeing success with their incentive programs.
“I think rallying around something that’s such a positive, fun way to improve attendance helps change the culture of the school,” said Megan Berceau, the intervention specialist for Utah’s Granite school district. The schools in her district use small, innovative incentives such as allowing students to ride non-motorized scooters down hallways during break as a reward for good attendance.
The key to making incentives work is getting inside your students’ heads and figuring out what they really want, said Allan Markley, the superintendent of the Raytown school district near Kansas City, Mo.
“A lot of kids are working to support their family, a lot of them are homeless. What can we do to entice kids to come to school? They are dealing with a lot and coming to school may not be their number one priority,” said Markley. “So, what does every 16-year-old dream of? Something with four wheels, maybe?”
That’s right. Raytown last year gave cars to two students, who were selected by raffle among those with top attendance records.
Holly Peele, Library Director and Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2017 edition of Education Week as Does Paying Kids to Do Well in School Actually Work?