Thursday, December 22, 2011

Paying for Our Future

Cash for Grades Programs:  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Perhaps you've heard of this.  In April 2010, Time magazine ran a huge article about the subject which you can read here.  Whether you like the idea or not, we all knew kids in school whose parents would pay them for good grades.  Five dollars for an A, four for a B, and so on and so forth.  Times have changed and the pay scale may have changed, but the concept has not, and some schools are taking the idea and running with it.  These programs, largely privately funded, have ignited the passions of parents and educators on both sides of the issue.  The real question, though, is do they work?

Roland G. Fryer of the Harvard University Department of Economics published his findings in the Quarterly Journal of Economics on Financial Incentives and Student Achievement:  Evidence from Randomized Trials in May of 2011.  Fryer and his group conducted three large randomized experiments in three of the nation's largest school districts:  Dallas, New York City, and Chicago.  Each experiment focused on students in different age groups and had a different target goal.  While the results were mixed, they have certainly illuminated some of the pros and cons of the programs.  Significantly, the schools selected to participate in the experiment were typically low-performing, low-income schools.

Ninth-graders in Chicago were paid every five weeks for their grades in five core classes (math, science, social science, English, and gym).  The pay was significant:  $50 for an A, $35 for a B, $20 for a C, $0 for a D, and $0 for an F.  Additionally, a student who received an F in any one subject in a five-week period also temporarily "lost" any other money earned by passing other classes (so a student who had four A's and an F temporarily forfeited the $200 they earned from their four A's) until the F was made up  in either credit recovery, night school, or summer school.  While the results did not show a significant improvement on student scores on the 10th-grade PLAN test administered at the beginning of the following school year, students who were in the experimental group did on average receive 1.9 more credits than their peers who were not in the treatment group (in Chicago, this is equivalent to passing 1/2 more of a class than their peers).  If you have ever taught in an under-performing school, you realize that this result is somewhat significant.

Second-graders in Dallas were paid $2 for every book they read, up to 20 books per semester.  Students would read the book and would take a computerized quiz to prove that they had read the book.  Each student was only allowed to take the quiz once and required to pass it with a score of 80% or better to receive the $2.  At the end of the school year, students were given the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and results indicated that native English speaking students significantly improved their scores in reading comprehension.  Interestingly, it was discovered that these results were not the same in English Language Learners.  Despite the fact that the ELL students read more books than their native-speaking counterparts, they actually performed worse in reading comprehension on their end-of-year test, the Logramos.  Fryer has some interesting theories about what may have caused this, but you'll have to go read his journal article to find out what those theories are (you can find it on pages 14 and 15 in his article).

Finally, 4th and 7th graders in New York City were paid to increase their test scores on ten assessments given throughout the school year.  Six tests were computerized and four were paper and pencil tests.  Fourth graders participating in the study were given $5 for completing the exam and $25 for a perfect score; seventh graders were given $10 for completing the exam and $50 for a perfect score.  Test scores, however, did not reflect any marked change in either math or reading.

Again, Fryer has some interesting thoughts on the results of the NYC and Chicago experiments, including the fact that asking a student (especially those from underprivileged neighborhoods) to simply improve their grades or test scores can be a monumental task, and one that these students don't inherently know how to do.  Perhaps the programs would have been more successful to pay students to complete and turn in their homework everyday, or attend X number of tutoring sessions, etc.

Critics of the Cash for Grades programs point out that we want our children to be intrinsically motivated to learn.  Psychologists warn that all extrinsic reward programs (money, stars, stickers, etc.) will eventually fail once the reward is taken away and there is no motivation to continue the desired the behavior.

I think all parents probably want their child to desire intrinsically to learn and succeed.

Proponents of the programs, however, say that perhaps it is time that we teach our children to view learning as their job.  Mom and Dad go to work and get paid so why shouldn't little Tommy or Suzy?  One junior high Bronx principal said, "We're in competition with the streets.  They can go out there and make $50 illegally any day of the week.  We have to do something to compete with that" (citation here). Perhaps this principal makes a valid point.

Like all programs, there are going to be some students who simply won't play ball.  I have spoken to many parents who tell me desperately that they have tried everything to make their child do better in school--including pay them for grades--to no avail.  I suspect, though, that there are usually deeper issues at work in situations such as these.

As Fryer says in his paper, these rewards programs are not a panacea.  They are not going to "fix" the education system overnight, but our system wasn't broken overnight, either.  Perhaps we should view our Cash for Grades programs as one more small tool we can use to repair a damaged structure.

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