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(Wintercow: I asked my former student, Greg Van Houten, to put together a few posts on his impressions of teaching. Greg graduated as a double major in Political Science and Economics from the U of R in Spring 2010. Since then he has been teaching as part of the Teach for America Program in Boston at the Prospect Hill Academy Charter School.)

I’ve read studies (Roland Fryer, Steven Levitt, and others) that examine the effects of providing students with financial incentives to perform well on tests and get good grades on their report card.  The idea is to influence student performance by rewarding them with money for reaching certain benchmarks.  For example, each student may be rewarded $50 for every A that they earn on their report card.  I haven’t read many of these in great detail, but I think they miss something very important: What if a student doesn’t know how to get good grades on their report card?  The financial incentive is meaningless if that is the case.

The best financial incentive system I can think of would have to involve two things: 1) Instant feedback (you handed in a HW assignment today, so you get a $1 today); and 2) It is not test-based, but rather based upon things that will drive good test performance (for example, rewarding HW completion and accuracy, class participation and attentiveness, classwork, punctuality, etc.).  If a student doesn’t know how to prepare for a test or how to get good grades, then a financial incentive (even if it’s a big number) can’t change performance.  Roland Fryer has written on this (read here: Fryer 2011).

Instant feedback, while important, receives less attention in this discussion.  Kids are so used to immediate feedback in their day-to-day lives (think texting, twitter, video games, etc.) that if you don’t provide them with immediate feedback then it’s hard for them to find meaning in what you’re offering.  Some of these experiments involve paying students for report card grades and it didn’t work that well; and I think this instant feedback piece was a contributing factor.  Telling a kid I’ll give you $50 for an A on your report card doesn’t help him get that A, as that $50 is just too far away and it doesn’t guide him towards earning that A (on second thought, this is likely very true for younger students and maybe less true for older students).

Instant feedback is extremely important in education even in situations where financial incentives aren’t present for students, so pairing the two seems like a good idea.  Unfortunately, instant feedback is probably one of my biggest flaws as a teacher.  I spend a lot of time planning and prepping, and not enough time grading and providing feedback.  When I don’t provide feedback, students don’t know how they’re doing, if they’re struggling, or what they need to fix.  It’s a bad a cycle to get into and certainly is damaging to student learning.  One advantage I have is the use of student response clickers, which allow students to interact with questions via PowerPoint and receive immediate feedback as to the answer.  I try and use them frequently, as they engage my students extremely well, and I accredit this not to me, but to the instant feedback.

Also, I just asked a few of my senior students (who are in a full-fledged state of senioritis) if $50 per A on their report card would influence their effort in classes.  They responded with an enthusiastic “yes” and then I felt bad because they initially thought we were implementing that program at my school.  This gets me thinking though, what would the Pittsfords of the U.S. start to say if the Rochester City Schools of the U.S. began to offer their students financial incentives?  I can say without much hesitation that $50 means a lot more to my students then to the average student from Pittsford; and thus, would have a greater impact in a school like my own.  I grew up in the Honeoye Falls – Lima school district and come from a very middle-class family and I’m not sure $50 per A would have motivated me at all in high school (I did not receive all A’s by any means in high school).  But, I think a financial incentive program would be effective in a school that serves students coming from low-income households and I  think it would drive students in my school towards good grades.  It’s an interesting idea, and doing some quick math (60 students x 5 core classes x $50 = $15,000) reveals that even if all the seniors in my school received A’s this quarter, the program would not be too expensive in comparison to other school expenditures.  And at the end of the day, instead of having every student struggling to get to the finish line, the program would likely lead some students towards solid grades and some meaningful learning in preparation for college.

6 Responses to “Guest Post: Thoughts on Providing Students with Financial Incentives”

  1. Harry says:

    Whose money pays students to get good grades, and what sort of system do you envision, Greg? How does the person administering this system of incentives know how the 80 million or so students will respond? This is a fundamental epistemological problem common to any top-down imposed system. Having incentives is not a value in itself.

    Look how our government provides incentives to Iowa corn farmers to distill moonshine to put into car gas tanks. This is the poster child du jour of economic engineering gone wild.

    Now, your idea of paying students to master their valances for chem class, or even learn vocabulary and times tables may have an effect on student success, is not the incentive already there?

    More importantly, how can you or I or the best Secretary of Education know, no matter how long we research and debate the subject?

    Thank you, Greg, for continuing to ask provocative, important questions in The Unbroken Window way.

  2. Harry says:

    Sorry, that was a comma splice, one letter grade off. I blame it on my IPhone, but Greg should take a harder line and not allow his students the same error, unless they give him Benjamin to erase the deduction. Now, there is an incentive.

  3. blink says:

    I agree that immediate feedback is important; it is consistent with learning theory and good teaching practice.

    As you say, many students may not know the specific steps needed to improve their grades. However, asking the teacher “How can I get an ‘A’?” is within the power of any student. Small incentives are most likely to work on the margin — a student with a B+ invests a little more effort to earn the $50 while the D student ignores the incentive. As you note, $50 means relatively less if you are wealthy. Even if the incentive works, though, the effects may be perverse: A student who otherwise would earn two B’s might reallocate his/her effort and earn an A and a D. The student receives the reward but may end up with less understanding.

    Also because unintended consequences seem likely, I do not favor paying for inputs like complete homework assignments. This is similar to paying teachers entirely based on seniority and credentials, irrespective of classroom performance. If we honestly cannot measure outputs, perhaps we have to settle for this, but it only adds another layer of complexity and greater probability of counter-productive results.

  4. Harry says:

    Blink and Greg, I am ready to bet a Buffalo nickel that neither of you needed ten bucks as an incentive to do what you did to get where you are today. Being a trusted friend of your professor is an achievement, but one has to start rolling up one’s pants to protect from the flood of theoretical BS.

    Paying any student to study harder is nonsense. Your task is to distinguish nonsense from truth, while maintaing whatever intellectual humility you can muster, and at the same time be not afraid to think for yourself. Yourselves.

  5. About 20 years ago, Newt Gingrich touted an Atlanta program that paid kids in poor neighborhoods to read books. It was funded by private donations and run through the public library. It was apparently successful at getting the kids to do something that they would not otherwise do. (We assume that these were not the kids who would have gone to the library without the incentive. I do not know any results for increases in new library cards issued.)

    I grew up in Cleveland, and we were “tracked” early on with several tiers of “better” students – academically talented; advanced placement; major work. (Later, I dated a girl from Indiana who bragged that she had been in “the Cleveland program” in her school.) Only a few of kids I knew of were paid by their parents for grades. As “blink” noted above, it seemed to work best at the margins: kids who would do well, did better. However, as noted also, the kids knew how to do well: do the homework; study before a test; pay attention in class; ask questions.

    In fact, by college, this has to be routine. No amount of clamoring about an educational crises in K-12 will drown out the simple fact that the process of schooling is behaviorial. Granted that schooling itself has multidimensional quantities of unresolved issues, the fact remains that college is just kindergarten for bigger kids: it’s the same process.

    Greg Van Houten’s experience with the student response clickers demonstrates also that the reward (“feedback”) need not be monetary to be effective. Video game designers figured that out: losing at “Missile Command” got you more lights and noises than winning – drop in another quarter. Reward transference predicts that verbal praise can take over for a material incentive.

    One caveat: FERPA can make all of this dfficult: you cannot single out a student for either praise or blame. Grades (rewards) must be consider privileged information.

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