Monday, June 18

Coming soon: cash for successful students

In Ben's last post, he took a look at merit pay for teachers. Now, New York City is going to pioneer offering merit pay for students — offering kids cash prizes for academic achievement.

Last week, when the first rumors of the mayor's plan to introduce monetary "incentives" for strong school performance hit the newspapers, I hoped they would prove to be just rumors. But today the city announced a pilot version of the incentive program, in which families will receive cold, hard cash for getting kids to school, showing up at parent-teacher conferences, and applying for a library card. At the high school level, it looks like the money will go straight to teenagers who take the PSAT and Regents exams and who make progress toward graduating. The incentive schedule includes a $400 graduation bonus.

This program is just one of three privately funded initiatives that make up what the city is calling "Opportunity NYC" and billing as "the nation's first conditional cash transfer program." In addition to paying for school performance, Opportunity NYC includes financial incentives for adults who maintain health insurance and who hold down a job or enroll in a job training program. All of the programs will be launched this fall on a pilot basis — the education program will be open only to families living in one of six neighborhoods whose income is below 130 percent of the poverty level and who have at least one child in grade 4, 7, or 9. Schools can also volunteer to participate in a trial of a program that will pay students for high scores on the interim assessments that all schools are supposed to give next year.

These programs represent a major achievement for Roland Fryer, the Harvard economics professor who has spent his career (short so far; he is just 30 years old) investigating whether incentives can convince people to change their environment. A fascinating 2005 New York Times Magazine cover story about Fryer suggested that DOE officials were already interested in his plan, but that he was having a hard time selling it to principals, who worried that paying kids for test scores would send the message that learning itself is an insufficient incentive. Last month, Fryer pitched his plan in a letter to principals of empowerment schools. I'm curious what has changed to get principals on board now.

While I'm always eager to hear about innovative strategies to motivate students and their families, the notion of exchanging cash for school performance just doesn't sit right with me. I wonder whether the incentives are large enough to persuade people to improve their behavior, or whether some families will just be rewarded for what they are already doing well. I also wonder, as others have, whether cash incentives will make tests even more stressful for kids than they already are. These are probably questions that Roland Fryer is eager to answer — I just wish it weren't the city's kids and their families who have to be his test subjects.


Ben said...

Although the notion of paying kids for high test performance-- something they already ought to want-- does seem a bit bizarre, I'm cautiously optimistic about Fryer's proposal. The plan sends a clear message that the DOE is interested in using creative approaches to achieve their ultimate goal: improved student achievement across the board. The payments are taking effect as a pilot plan-- only 40 schools are expected to participate-- so this will be a good opportunity to find out whether such incentives actually do improve scores. Moreover, the plan is funded with private contributions, rather than tax funding.

While it would be nice if students worked hard to perform well simply for the sake of learning, there is often a gap between short-term motivations and long-term benefits, and Fryer is clearly trying to find some way to turn what is already in students' long-term interests into a more effective immediate incentive.

Ultimately, the results of the program will speak for themselves, and I think those results should be the criteria we use to evaluate it. Meanwhile, I don't think we need to be too concerned about the students who are Fryer's "test subjects"-- they might do better as a result, and it's hard to see why they would do worse.

The risk of the program, as I see it, is the possibility that it will further alienate middle- and upper-class constituents. (See the post on Clara Hemphill's UChicago alumni speech a few days ago.) Aside from this risk, I'm glad to see a creative incentive approach on the part of the DOE, and I hope the program proves successful.

Philissa said...

Two points, Ben.

First, I want to note out that the term "cautiously optimistic" has appeared on the blog three times already! Perhaps a moratorium is in order?

Second, I'm not contesting that we ought to think of creative ways to close the "gap between short-term motivations and long-term benefits" for students. But cash seems like a crude incentive, and one that is most likely to alienate folks -- not just the middle class, but the classmates and neighbors of the families who do get the incentives. As with any experiment, randomization will lead to more scientific results, but I maintain that it gets a lot more complicated when you take into account the fact that real people are involved.

I agree that this experiment can potentially generate useful information, but I do think the program has the potential to hurt kids. What happens to motivation when the foundation funding runs out and academic achievement is no longer profitable for kids and parents? And do kids really need another stake for their supposedly "no stakes" interim assessments?

Seth said...

I am currently a high school student and a representative of the NYC Student Union. I also feel weird about the program. While it is an interesting and creative way to engage students, the amount of stress it will cause ruins the plan for me. Anxiety about testing not only affects a students test scores (whether for better or worse is arguable) but also detaches us from our schools.

This plan creates just another situation in which many parents will put more pressure on their children to perform well on tests. When some students don't perform as well as expected, and thus do not make as much money as they can, it takes away from their self-esteem and can possibly affect their relationship with their parents. In this situation, it would be natural for one of us to blame our school for this emotional damage.

This results in the widening of the gap between this city's students and their schools.