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Study: Cash incentives for students may improve academic achievement



Kid with cash The results of a performance-pay experiment in several cities suggests there may be a cheaper way to boost student achievement than teacher merit pay or class-size reduction: Cold, hard cash. For the kids.

At issue are a suite of incentive studies -- with students -- that have been overseen by Harvard researcher Roland Fryer. Fryer didn't find any silver bullets; he acknowledges a lot more research needs to be done; and there are lots and lots of devils in the details. But the early results suggest some students (boys, Hispanics, students with previously bad behavior) respond well to financial incentives if those incentives are tied to specific tasks, like reading books, instead of more abstract, long-term goals like higher standardized test scores. Writes Fryer in this recently released working paper:

In summary, we find that relative to achievement-increasing education reform in the past few decades -- Head Start, lowering class size, bonuses for effective teachers to teach in high need schools -- student incentives for certain inputs provide similar results at lower cost. Yet, incentives alone, like these other reforms, are not powerful enough to close achievement gap.

Finding the correct interpretation for our set of experiments is difficult. Much depends on the interpretation of results from Washington, D.C. The leading theory is that students do not understand the educational production function and, thus, lack the know-how to translate their excitement about the incentive structure into measurable output. Students who were paid to read books, attend class, or behave well did not need to know how the vector of potential inputs relates to output, they simply needed to know how to read, make it to class, or sit still long enough to collect their short-term incentive.

You can read more about Fryer's studies in Time magazine here and in the Washington Post here. The St. Petersburg Times took a look at this issue a few years ago here. (Image from


[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:59am]


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