Bribery Pays

By Bryan Toporek — April 16, 2010 2 min read
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Parents often reward their young children with allowances for helping out with chores around the house, so why can’t schools offer students financial incentives for accomplishing more in the classroom? That’s the logic behind an experiment conducted by Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr., who used over $6 million dollars (of largely privately-collected money) to test performance-based pay for student in four cities across the United States.

Fryer runs an education-innovation laboratory at Harvard, with the mission of narrowing the achievement gap between the United States’ white and minority students by 2025. After hearing about a small-scale program in New York City that rewarded students financially, he wanted to expand on the idea, using the scientific method to discover new ways to reach students academically.

Each city in Fryer’s experiment—Washington, D.C., Dallas, Los Angeles, and Chicago—had its own unique model of rewarding students, to test which methods worked most effectively. In NYC, students could earn up to $50 for performing well on tests; Chicago students could earn $50 for earning an “A” in a class (half of which would go directly into a savings account until their high school graduation); Washington students could earn upwards of $100 every two weeks based on their performance, attendance, and behavior; and Dallas second-graders had the simplest system, earning two dollars for every book they read (which ended up costing $14 per student, on average).

Fryer expected the New York students to respond most strongly to his experiment; much to his surprise, the New York students showed no evident improvement. Chicago students who earned money for grades attended class more often and scored better on tests, but their end-of-year standardized test scores didn’t rise substantially.

On the other hand, the Washington students who participated in the experiment did raise their standardized reading test scores, leading Fryer to conclude that rewarding students for smaller accomplishments—such as attendance and good behavior—had a positive effect on their learning. It was in Dallas, though, that the program had the most success. Not only did students who participated there raise their standardized reading test scores, but they continued to perform better than their peers the next year, after the rewards had stopped.

Surprised? Teacher blogger Nancy Flanagan isn’t.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Web Watch blog.