School & District Management

Professor to Test Cash Incentives

By Caroline Hendrie — December 07, 2004 1 min read
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Roland G. Fryer thinks he knows a common-sense way to get pupils from struggling city neighborhoods to try harder in class: pay them for their efforts.

This winter, the assistant professor of economics at Harvard University plans to test his theory in a New York City research project. With the blessing of city Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, the 3rd and 7th graders taking part in the study will receive small amounts of cash for doing well on standardized classroom tests given every three weeks or so. The project is slated to start in February in 20 public schools scattered around New York City.

“We think of this as a real serious attempt to understand the efficacy of incentives,” said Mr. Fryer, who is in his second year of teaching at Harvard. “It’s an organized allowance program for people in communities who don’t have the resources to give their kids allowance.”

If all goes as planned, youngsters will be rewarded both on an individual and a group basis for scoring at a certain level or improving significantly on assessments designed to prepare them for high-stakes tests. At each three-week testing milestone, 3rd graders would be eligible for $10 each, while 7th graders could earn $20 each.

Mr. Fryer said he was scouting for a bank to partner with him in the study, with the understanding that half of the rewards would go into accounts set up for the students and the other half would go into their pockets.

Troubled by prior research he conducted on the achievement gap between black and white students in the early grades, Mr. Fryer began thinking that money might be a way to kick-start a positive cycle of achievement among students of color from disadvantaged communities.

“You can’t tell a kindergartner, ‘If you graduate, I’ll pay for your college education,’ ” he said. “But if you can give them step by step—achievement, reward, achievement, reward—then they’ll be there.”

For those alarmed by the notion of paying children to learn, Mr. Fryer predicts that “the joy of achievement” will come to mean far more to the pupils than the money.

“Most of these 3rd graders can barely read,” he said. “If grubbing for grades gets them basic skills, so be it.”

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