School & District Management

Ohio District Tests Performance Pay—for Students

By Debra Viadero — January 16, 2007 8 min read
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Geralyn Raach, a teacher at Central Elementary School, has a favorite slogan for motivating her 3rd graders to put in their best effort, but it’s not what you would expect. Borrowing a line from the movie “Jerry Maguire,”the veteran teacher likes to call out, “Show me the money!”

That’s because Ms. Raach’s district is taking part in an unusual experiment to pay students for passing or scoring high on state exams. Pupils here in grades 3 through 6 earn $15 for every “proficient” score and $20 for “accelerated” or “advanced” scores. With annual tests given in five subjects, students can earn up to $100 if they ace their exams.

Ashley Bingham, left, does an in-class assignment as teacher Debbie Brown works with student Clay Tubbs in her classroom at Washington Elementary School in Coshocton, Ohio. The district is part of a research experiment measuring the effect of paying students an amount that rises along with their scores on state tests.

Running counter to decades of research in motivational psychology, the idea of paying students for their test performance is anathema to many educators. But administrators and teachers in this small city in central Ohio argue that, in an era when the federal No Child Left Behind Act and other accountability programs are putting unprecedented pressure on schools to show that students’ test scores are improving, bold measures are in order.

Coshocton schools are now in the third year of the experiment, which is being conducted by a researcher from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Though the final results are not due until later this year, preliminary findings look promising, particularly for mathematics, according to those involved in the study.

“Even if we can raise the scores a little bit, it’s beneficial to the district,” said Wade E. Lucas, the superintendent of the 2,000-student district. “What we’re trying to get at here is real facts and real data that tells us if something works.”

Squelching Motivation?

Coshocton’s experiment is controversial because some psychological studies suggest that giving students external rewards, such as cash, can extinguish any internal desire to learn for the sheer joy of it.

“Even if these rewards were used to enhance meaningful learning, they would be bad,” said Alfie Kohn, the author of Punished by Rewards, a 1993 book that critiqued common practices in schools of using external incentives to spur students to study. “To use them at the same time to raise test scores is a horrendous objective, given that tests tend to measure what matters least.”

Businessman Robert E. Simpson provided $100,000 from his family's foundation for Coshocton's student-incentive program.

Eric P. Bettinger, the researcher who heads up the Coshocton experiment, says his reading of that body of research suggests a more mixed picture of the findings.

Whether rewards harm students’ motivation “depends on who the population was, and what the subject was, and how you were motivating the students,” said Mr. Bettinger, an associate professor of economics at Case Western.

“We’ve already told schools that there are carrots and sticks associated with tests,” he added, referring to the nationwide movement to hold schools or students accountable for raising test scores. “As a result, it’s a different environment where a change like this might make a difference.”

Mr. Bettinger was recruited to Coshocton by Robert E. Simpson, a local manufacturer. Mr. Simpson became interested in testing a student pay-for-performance program four years ago after reading an article in Forbes magazine by one of Mr. Bettinger’s colleagues.

In the article, economist Edward Miguel, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, described a randomized study that he and other economists had done in Kenya, in which teenage girls were given cash awards for their exam performance.

As part of the study, girls were paid $12 a year for two years—a substantial sum in that country—for passing scores. Researchers found that the incentive resulted in attendance and test-score gains for both boys and girls.

“It sounded like something that would work here in the Appalachian foothills,” said Mr. Simpson, the founder and chairman of MFM Building Products Corp. “There are great people here, but some of the students don’t have the encouragement at home. You hear comments like ‘I didn’t go to college, so my kid doesn’t have to go to college.’ ”

While such views may have made sense when Coshocton was a thriving manufacturing center, the city’s economic fortunes have taken a downward turn in recent decades.

Since the 1990s, four major employers have left town or laid off workers. By 2003, the city’s average household income, at around $21,000 a year, was well below the state average.

More than half the students in the public school system are poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized meals, and nearly a quarter are classified as needing special education.

To survive in the changing economy, Mr. Simpson thought, a college education was becoming a necessity, rather than an option, for Coshocton’s young people.

Coupons known as "Coshocton bucks" hang from the ceiling of Debbie Brown's classroom, as a reminder to her students to work hard. The play money can be redeemed at local stores, but only by students, who earn it for scoring well on state tests.

On top of the economic situation, state officials in 1999 declared the school system to be in “academic emergency” because of students’ low test scores. Educators were digging their way out from under that label when Mr. Simpson approached them with an offer: His family foundation would provide $100,000 for a student-incentive program if the school system agreed to take part in a randomized experiment documenting the results.

The superintendent and other educators say they were skeptical at first.

“I’m one of the old-school teachers—28 years into this—and I’m going, ‘Man, I don’t know,’ ” said Ms. Raach.

As the president of the city teachers’ union at the time, Ms. Raach compiled a three-page memo raising questions about the project. She said teachers wanted to know what would happen to the children who were not picked to be part of the program.

And what effect would rewards have on children who were already self-starters? What would keep parents from using the money their children had earned? Would teachers who were not in the experimental group still be allowed to offer incentives like pizza parties and movie breaks to their students?

Other teachers said a few parents and local residents also asked them privately if the school system was trying to bribe students in order to enhance its academic profile.

‘Coshocton Bucks’

To address those concerns and questions as the experiment unfolded, school officials pulled together an advisory committee that included the superintendent, principals and teachers from each of the four participating elementary schools, parents, special educators, business people, the editor of the local newspaper, and a representative from Mr. Simpson’s foundation. “This would not have lasted three years if we didn’t get that ground-level buy-in,” Mr. Lucas said.

The group agreed on a study design that called for randomly assigning entire grades in the four elementary schools either to be part of a “treatment” group or remain in their status quo condition. (Teachers did not want to pit classes against one another in the same grades.)

To choose which grades in which schools would participate—and generate some excitement for the program in the bargain—the district now holds a public lottery each year during the city school board’s September meeting at Coshocton High School. Mr. Bettinger comes and brings along a bingo cage. The high school band performs; the cheerleaders cheer. The 3rd through 6th graders are bused in from every elementary school to witness it all.

“We were worried we wouldn’t get it, and then the man drew that little ball and we all stood up and shouted,” recalled Kristina Vickers, a 4th grader at Central Elementary School. “I had my fingers on both hands crossed, and my legs, too.”

Tests are given in the spring, and students who qualify for an award get it in June in the form of “Coshocton bucks,” colorful coupons printed by the Coshocton County Chamber of Commerce that can be redeemed at local stores—but only by children.

“We’ve found that merchants are making comments to kids like, ‘Oh, you’re one of the smart guys who are trying hard in school,’ ” said Mr. Simpson. “We didn’t expect that added benefit.”

Results Under Wraps

Fearing the experiment could become contaminated, Mr. Bettinger has been circumspect with the preliminary results. When the final results are in this coming summer, though, he hopes to be able to answer a range of questions, including:

Do test gains decrease for classes that qualify for the program in one year, but are not in it the next? Are the effects cumulative? Are improvements greater in schools with higher concentrations of poor children? Do girls respond to the incentives more than boys?

Also, because of a scheduling quirk, 3rd graders take reading tests twice a year. Only the higher score “counts” for accountability purposes. As a result, Mr. Bettinger will be able to analyze whether students who score high in the fall testing round try as hard in the spring.

From the perspective of local educators, meanwhile, the rewards seem to be having an effect. The district has also shed the “academic emergency” label, whether due to the incentive program or not.

Ms. Brown's students work on an in-class assignment.

“The first couple of years, I was not really sure how much of an incentive it was,” Wendy S. Kimberley, a 6th grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School, said of the program. “But this year’s kids were so excited right off the bat when their names got pulled.”

Ms. Kimberley and other teachers also noticed increases in the number of Lincoln 6th graders attending “study tables,” an optional test-preparation program that’s offered after school.

At another school, a teacher has hung dollar bills from the classroom ceiling as a constant reminder of the incentive program.

Ms. Raach, though, has had to give up saying, “Show me the money,” at least for now. Her students didn’t win the lottery this year.

Instead, she rewards them for hard work much as she has always done, with movie breaks and pizza parties. She also has put together guidelines, or rubrics, to help students judge for themselves whether they’re putting forth their best efforts on tests and schoolwork.

“We’ve had extrinsic motivators for years in education, with pizza parties and candy jars,” said Mr. Lucas, the superintendent. “The issue seems to be that when you cross the line is when you pay money. I’m not sure that makes sense anymore.”

Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2007 edition of Education Week as Ohio District Tests Performance Pay—for Students


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