D.C. students respond to cash awards, Harvard study shows
Saturday, April 10, 2010
Paying District middle-schoolers as much as $100 a month for good grades, behavior and attendance led to higher reading test scores for Hispanics, boys and students with behavior problems, according to the early results of a Harvard University study.
The overall effect of the cash awards on the 3,000 students in 15 D.C. middle schools was less significant, however, and the study's author acknowledged that the relatively small sample makes it difficult to draw strong conclusions about the initiative.
The initial results of the study, released Thursday, are unlikely to quell the long debate about financial rewards for students. Critics deride the idea as tantamount to bribery and point to a body of research that suggests such incentives can erode children's intrinsic motivation. The study's author, Harvard economist Roland Fryer, said there was no evidence that the money led to the waning of student motivation or interest in learning. And although the program is "no silver bullet," the results justify continued study, he said.
"We have a set of promising results, and we need more," Fryer said.
But Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said Friday that she was pleased with the results, which cover the 2008-09 academic year. She added that she was "shocked" at the gains on DC-CAS standardized tests achieved by Hispanics and other subgroups, which were the equivalent of as much as five additional months of school.
Compared with the cost of other kinds of supports for at-risk children, such as smaller class sizes and Head Start, she said, the outcomes were impressive. The total District outlay for the Capital Gains program that year came to $1.2 million, including average payments of about $530 to the students who participated.
"I definitely think it was a good investment for us," said Rhee, who cited the importance of finding ways to keep students engaged in their middle-school years.
The future of the program, which is continuing at least through this school year, is uncertain. Rhee said she expects to get a "quick and dirty" assessment of this year's student achievement soon. If the second-year results are similar, she said, she will push to continue the initiative despite the system's tight budget.
The Capital Gains program is part of a four-city, $6.3 million study led by Fryer to assess whether financial incentives can spur academic achievement in urban classrooms. Second-graders in Dallas received $2 for reading a book. Chicago high school freshmen were paid every five weeks for earning good grades in five core courses. Fourth- and seventh-graders in New York City earned cash payments for performance on tests.
The results, first reported in Time magazine, are mixed. Students who were asked to perform tangible tasks, such as the Dallas second-graders, showed significant test score growth. In Chicago and New York, where student payments depended solely on test scores, there was little increase.
"To my surprise, incentive programs that rewarded process seemed to be more effective than those that rewarded outcomes," said Fryer, who leads the Educational Innovation Laboratory at Harvard.
The District experiment was a hybrid, with schools required to use attendance and behavior as criteria but free to select other measures such as grades, homework completion and adherence to uniform policy. Cash payments were based on a $2-per-point system, with one point awarded daily for each goal met. The average two-week take for a student was about $40. Among the schools participating are Hart, Kelly Miller, Shaw at Garnet-Patterson, Stuart-Hobson, Brightwood, Burroughs and Emery.