Incentives Can Make Or Break Students
Ethical Issues Come With Gains on Tests

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 2008

The inducements range from prepaid cellphones to MP3 players to gift certificates. But most of them are cash: $10 for New York City seventh-graders who complete a periodic test; $50 for Chicago high school freshmen who ace their courses; as much as $110 to Baltimore students for improved scores on the Maryland High School Assessments.

Desperate for ways to ratchet up test scores and close the achievement gap separating white and minority students, school officials from Tucson to Boston are paying kids who put up good numbers.

The District joined the list this fall, launching a one-year study of 3,300 middle schoolers who can earn up to $100 every two weeks for good grades, behavior and attendance. On Oct. 17, the first payday for the Capital Gains program, students collected an average of $43.

The efforts vary widely in scope and objective. But nearly all trigger passionate arguments about the wisdom of monetizing academic achievement.

Critics denounce the initiatives as bribery and say the money could be better invested in ideas known to work, such as smaller class size. They also point to a body of psychological research suggesting that tangible rewards can erode children's intrinsic motivation. DePaul University education professor Ronald Chennault says there are ethical issues posed by the ventures, most of which are experimental and dependent on private funding and local political support.

"The potential for harm is, what happens after the incentive no longer exists?" Chennault asked. "Not everything is worth trying."

Capital Gains has emerged as an issue in this fall's at-large D.C. Council races. At an education forum last week, candidate Patrick Mara said he was "completely disgusted" by the idea at first but is now willing to see how it works. Incumbent Carol Schwartz said she never would have proposed such a plan but doesn't object. Incumbent Kwame R. Brown and challenger David Schwartzman are opposed, with Brown echoing Chennault's concerns about what happens when awards disappear.

Proponents, who include Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, assert that the initiatives are a modest attempt to give children from low-income families a taste of the rewards, formal and informal, that kids from well-off backgrounds have enjoyed for years.

"Wealthy parents in the suburban area, they give their kids a car. They take them on a trip to Hawaii. They send them around the world," Daley told reporters last month at the launch of the city's "Green for Grades" project. "These kids don't even get out of their homes for many, many years."

Although a flurry of incentive programs have started up in the past year, the idea is as old as gold stars. Some school systems have had cash initiatives in place for years. So what difference do they make?

The evidence, not surprisingly, is murky. Even the apparent success stories come with caveats and qualifications.

For the past 12 years, a Dallas nonprofit group, Advanced Placement Strategies, has targeted more than 100 Texas high schools with predominantly minority and low-income students, offering up to $500 for top scores on AP tests in English, math and science. A new study by Cornell University economist Kirabo Jackson found that the program produced a sizable increase in the number of juniors and seniors taking AP or International Baccalaureate exams. Jackson also linked higher SAT and ACT scores to the effort.

But the Texas initiative also rewarded teachers, with annual bonuses of up to $10,000. Gregg Fleisher, former head of Advanced Placement Strategies, said instructors are "the missing big variable" in a lot of incentive programs.

"When you address student-only incentives, you only attack half the issue," said Fleisher, who is working to replicate the Texas strategy in 67 schools across six states, including Virginia, this fall for the National Math and Science Initiative, founded in 2005 with a $125 million grant from ExxonMobil to improve math and science education.

A new New York program inspired by the Texas effort but that does not give cash incentives to teachers has not fared as well. The privately funded Rewarding Achievement offered up to $1,000 to students at 31 high schools for high AP test scores. More than 340 additional students took the tests this year, but the number who passed dipped slightly. Collective bargaining agreements in New York sharply restrict incentive pay for teachers.

Researchers say the commitment of all adults is essential to student reward programs. A Stanford University study of 186 charter schools with incentives showed a "consistent impact" averaging four percentile points on reading scores. The report, released in May, said the stronger and more enthusiastic the staff and parents, the larger the gains.

Some programs seem to reinforce concerns about the consequences of withdrawing the incentives.

Since 2005, the small central Ohio town of Coshocton has given half of its third- through sixth-graders "Coshocton Kid Bucks" -- gift certificates redeemable at businesses -- for good scores on state exams.

The only significant gains were in math scores, according to Superintendent David Hire. More tellingly, scores of students who were deemed eligible through a lottery one year but ineligible the next fell.

Detractors also point to research on the corrosive quality of tangible rewards on student motivation. In one study, University of Rochester psychologist Edward L. Deci gave two groups of college students building-block puzzles to work on. One group got $1 for every puzzle solved; the other received nothing. When Deci said the experiment was over and encouraged everyone to relax, those getting the money were more likely to abandon the puzzles.

In 2001, Deci and three colleagues published an analysis of 128 studies on the effects of tangible rewards, concluding that they "do significantly and substantially undermine intrinsic motivation." This was especially true, they said, for young children.

The District's Capital Gains project is part of what is likely to be the most influential study of cash incentives for kids. It is led by Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer Jr., who has also set up the incentive programs in New York and Chicago, with the help of the Broad Foundation as part of a larger effort to bring the rigor of private research and development to educational issues.

Each program is designed to study different sets of inducements for various age groups.

Freshmen and sophomores at 20 Chicago high schools get $50 for each A in a five-week marking period, $35 for a B and $20 for a C. An F negates any cash reward for a given period. Half of all student earnings are withheld until graduation.

New York's Spark program, now in its second year, focuses on fourth- and seventh-graders at 59 city schools. Younger students get $5 for completing each of 10 periodic tests; seventh-graders get $10.

Fryer said he will be the first to call for abandoning cash incentives if they are shown to have no significant impact.

"This is not a silver bullet," he said during a recent visit to the District. "But it's better than sitting around and doing nothing."

Shelontae Carter is not quite as sure. Carter, whose son Christian is an eighth-grader at Shaw at Garnet-Patterson Middle School, said she's willing to try Capital Gains but sees numerous potential pitfalls: resentment from kids whose grades or behavior don't earn them much, parents who claim the money for themselves.

"I don't know if it's going to be good for very long down the road," she said. "I know that when you give rewards, it can go both ways."

Research director Lucy Shackelford and staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

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