(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.