This week's Time Magazine reports on the work of Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr.and his colleagues at the Harvard Education Innovation Laboratory in looking at how monetary incentives can improve the performance of school children. An extensive controlled study involving students in four cities used different payment methods and different areas of academic competence to examine whether students would respond positively to payments for performance. One subgroup involved New York City elementary and middle school students, who were paid for higher scores on standardized tests. The results showed no real change in test scores or any other parameters. Chicago ninth graders who received payment for better grades did improve their grades a bit, but did no better on standardized tests.
Where improvement was seen was where students were rewarded for small actions that were within their control and which were not complicated for them to implement. These included Washington students who received payments for improving attendence and behavior, who showed changes in both of these areas, as well as improved reading skills. The greatest improvements were seen in Dallas students who substantially improved their reading comprehension scores when they were paid to read books and take a quiz showing they understood what they read.
One possible reason for these different results is that the tasks where payments were correlated with improvement were very specific. Those that were broader -- better grades, or better test scores -- may have been too hard for students to figure out how to achieve. Think about it. Even a motivated student might have trouble figuring out just what he has to do to get better test scores.
There are many issues to study further, and Dr. Fryer indicated that he intends to do so. But in schools where most students struggle, any information that helps adults understand what motivates students to do better is an important addition to the formula for improvement.