Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

The Pay-for-Grades Boondoggle


I’m a couple of weeks behind on this, but a recent Economist article provides further confirmation of what New York’s Mayor Bloomberg reluctantly conceded earlier this year: Incentive payments to students for attending school and passing exams don’t work:

The results of the experiments where scholastic performance was rewarded were uniformly disappointing. In New York fourth- and seventh-grade students in payment schools could earn up to $25 and $50 respectively, depending on their score on each of ten standard maths and reading tests. In Chicago ninth-grade students were rewarded on a sliding scale for good grades in five courses, including English, maths and science. Getting an “A” was worth $50; a “D” meant no money. In theory a student could earn up to $2,000 a year. Plenty of money was paid out, but Mr Fryer found absolutely no evidence that paying students led them to do better than their peers in the control schools. Neither girls nor boys gained, and it did not seem to matter how students had previously performed.

The article holds out hope that a program that starts earlier and has more modest goals may be of some help:

If students do not know how to improve their own performance, the best strategy may be to pick a simple task, reward pupils for doing it, and hope that this translates into higher grades. This was the approach Mr Fryer took in Dallas, where second-grade students were simply given $2 for every book they read if they passed a computerised comprehension test on it. Predictably this spurred them to read more books and improved their vocabularies. But it also improved their school grades substantially, although this is not what they were paid for. A year after the payments had stopped, students in the schools that had offered money were still outperforming those in control schools, although the gap had narrowed. It may have helped that the Dallas students were younger. Middle-school students in Washington, DC, gained little from being paid for inputs like attendance. But the results from Dallas suggest that payments can help at least some students get more out of school.

Overall, though, a short-term stimulus in education is like a short-term stimulus in economics: Whatever questionable benefits it may yield, they vanish when the stimulus ends. If students understand that learning creates its own financial reward by helping you get a better job, they don’t need any extra payments; and if they don’t understand that simple truth, a few extra bucks in their pockets won’t make any difference.


Subscribe to National Review