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Winter 2010

Ed. Extra: Earn to Learn?

pay_illustration2.jpgIt's a warm afternoon in May in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, and as the bell signals the end of the school day at the Smith Leadership Academy School, kids flood into the halls and burst through the doors outside.

They stop immediately, staring, and begin to point and whisper. Two white stretch limousines are parked at the front of the school building, each with a uniformed chauffeur standing solemnly beside it. The buzz grows louder: Is there a rapper visiting the classrooms? Maybe one of the Boston Celtics has come to get a tour of their new charter school. The kids crowd around the limos, and a few try to climb in.

Finally, when their curiosity climbs to its peak, Ayele Shakur, Ed.M.'95 steps to the front of the crowd and motions for the kids to quiet down.

"The limousines are for the students [from a special program] who made honor roll this semester," she tells them. "Every student who got A's and B's on their report card will be driven home in a stretch limo today."

The children yell and clap, jostling to look at their classmates who won this distinction. A girl steps forward, surprised but grinning, and steps into the limo. A boy proudly follows her, then another. The crowd applauds loudly.

"We want them to think school is cool," explains Shakur, cofounder and executive director of a unique afterschool program for urban schools in Boston (including Smith Academy) that for more than a decade has racked up impressive results in turning around low-achieving students, in part, by using financial incentives. Building Inspiration to Fight Failure Paradigm Project: A Motivational Learning Skills Program (BIFF), launched 11 years ago by the Boston Learning Center, is a nine-week program that targets urban students from low- to moderate-income families who are intelligent but lack academic motivation, who would rather be "street smart" than "school smart." Within just three weeks, it manages to significantly alter students' effort in class and attitudes toward school, according to a study released last June authored by Sally Schwager, Ed.M.'76, C.A.S.'78, Ed.D.'92, Laura Hsin Feng, Ed.M.'09, and Marisa Whalen, Ed.M.'09. By the end of the program, there is breathtaking change in the group.

Shedding negative attitudes about school is the difference between making F's and A's for these students, Shakur believes, so motivating them to learn is key. But how to do that? It begins with the first day of the program, when a teacher pulls out a shiny pile of quarters from her pocket and loudly plunks them down in front of the class, then hands them out for correct answers or notable effort. "It sounds like Las Vegas on that first day," says Shakur, laughing.

And it works. Over the past decade, hundreds of BIFF children failing or underachieving in middle and high school have completely overhauled their academic performances, surpassing even BIFF's own goals. Schwager's study found that in just a single year after participating in BIFF, 59 percent of students increased their grades by 12 to 30 points in English, math, science, history, and foreign languages, and 25 percent went from failing to honor roll (all A's and B's) or honorable mention (A's and B's plus one C). One hundred percent of its 10th grade alumni passed the 2004 and 2005 MCAS in English and math, and among BIFF's 2006 high school graduates who applied to college, a whopping 92 percent were accepted in their first-choice college -- and this from a population of kids who hadn't much chance of graduating high school, let alone considering something beyond.

More subtle but equally important, 80 percent of the 500 students who completed the BIFF program between 1999 and 2004 showed "measurable improvements in their attitudes toward school." Students said BIFF changed the way they think about school, about their futures, and about wanting to achieve; they said they study more, pay better attention in class, and are more likely to do their homework, the report found.

To get and keep kids motivated, BIFF uses a number of unusual, financially based incentives. In addition to the money rewards in class and limousine "victory rides," it offers pizza parties, gift certificates, and a year-end trip to the Six Flags Amusement Park for honor roll students. Students with perfect attendance receive $20; those who miss one class take home $10, and $5 if they missed two classes. (More than that, and they're out of the program.) But these tangible tokens are, in a sense, a ploy. Many of these kids have never witnessed or even imagined the connection between academic success and financial success, Shakur explains; once they realize that nexus, the program shifts, and monetary rewards begin to peter out, replaced by the recognition that education is valuable in its own right.

So it's a kind of bait-and-switch? Shakur agrees, laughing. But once the switch is on, she says, the kids are the big winners.

Opposition and Experiments

Does paying kids to learn really work? It's a hot -- and hotly contested -- question, albeit one overshadowed by the similar but much-higher-profile debate over the merits of tying teacher pay to student performance (see "Right on the Money," Ed. magazine, winter 2010).

The issue is gaining increasing attention as more educators eager to motivate students, especially those at the low end of the achievement gap, are, like Shakur, experimenting with financial incentives for kids. Shakur says the approach -- if structured properly -- can work, and others agree. The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), for example, a national network of successful charter schools focused on low-income students, has for years used various money-based rewards. In the state of Oklahoma, low-income high school students who agree to make good grades in a prescribed curriculum, attend school, and stay out of trouble can get free tuition at public and private colleges in the state. Other school districts, teachers, and principals are also trying financial rewards for kids.

Opponents hate this approach. They insist it's wrong to "bribe" students to do what they should be doing anyway, and argue that financial incentives destroy a child's intrinsic motivation and love for learning. Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, says financial incentives for students are misguided and don't work.

"Rewards, like punishments, can produce only one thing: temporary obedience," he says. "What they can never do is help kids become more effective or enthusiastic learners. In fact, research has repeatedly shown that the more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. So these incentives aren't just ineffective -- they're actually counterproductive."

Kohn, who has written hundreds of articles on education, parenting, and related topics including for The New York Times and the Atlantic, believes the new focus on rewarding students enables politicians and educators to avoid true educational reform. "One reason adults are so fond of reward programs is that it spares them from having to ask why kids have to be bribed in the first place," he says. "What would it take to create a school where kids want to show up? How can we nourish kids' natural curiosity and desire to learn? What does it say about homework that children dread doing it and rarely find it of value? To answer those questions, to make school meaningful for students, takes time and talent and courage. But you don't need any of those things to toss kids a doggie biscuit when they jump through our hoops."

Schools filled with eager, excited students is a dream shared by all; getting there, of course, has proven elusive. While awaiting this educational utopia, how do educators make sure the achievement gap doesn't cripple another generation?

You can try paying them to read books, do their homework, and show up to school -- because this can work very well, according to a new study released in April by Harvard's Education Innovation Laboratory, commonly referred to as EdLabs, that's reaped lots of attention, including a lengthy feature article in Time magazine. The first to examine the effects of financial incentives among urban public school students, it found that rewards can produce excellent results in closing the achievement gap -- if they are tied to specific steps the students take rather than to grades or test results. In fact, paying elementary age children to read books did as much to boost their ability as more popular approaches such as smaller class size, Head Start, and bonuses to teachers for working in at-risk schools, the study determined -- and was much cheaper, too.

The experiment, which ran during the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 school years, was the brainchild of Harvard professor Roland Fryer, CEO of EdLabs. Befitting its name, the laboratory's mission is to be open to a wide range of creative ideas and approaches for closing the educational achievement gap among American students -- and, importantly, to rely on rigorous research to determine what works and doesn't. A few years ago, Fryer set out to determine whether financial incentives for kids helped. The lab set up four different models in four cities with low-performing urban school districts -- Chicago, Dallas, New York City, and Washington, D.C. -- and over two school years, handed out a total of $6.3 million to 38,000 students. The team was "agnostic" about financial incentives before the study began, emphasizes Gavin Samms, the lab's research director; they simply wanted to see if they worked.

Dallas and D.C. were "input" experiments where students were paid for taking certain specific steps that they controlled: In Dallas, second-graders were paid $2 each time they read a book and passed a quiz on it; in D.C., middle-schoolers received money rewards for such things as good behavior, attendance, turning in homework, and wearing a school uniform. In contrast, Chicago and New York were "output" experiments where students were rewarded for results, not for the steps they took to get there. Chicago ninth-graders were paid every five weeks for good grades in five core courses; in New York, fourth- and seventh-graders were paid for doing well on tests.

In Chicago and New York -- the output cities -- the achievement gap did not budge. While the Chicago group did make better grades and came to school more often, they did not improve on standardized tests. The New York experiment also failed to improve test scores. But the results in the input cities were encouraging. Paying Dallas second-graders to read books had a large and statistically significant impact on their reading comprehension with a spillover effect of improving their grades -- equivalent to an extra three months of school -- and the benefits continued even after the rewards stopped. And giving D.C. students money to behave in class, do their homework, and show up for school also resulted in better test scores.

Why didn't tying money to outputs such as good grades or higher test scores work? Fryer's group theorizes that students, while eager to earn the money, simply don't know what they need to do to make better grades or score higher. But connecting financial rewards to things the kids can easily control and which, in turn, do affect their performance, such as showing up for school or reading books, gives students the guidance they need for the results they want.

Fryer's group is careful not to overplay the results, but they are excited to do more research, hoping to extend the experiment in D.C., for instance.

"The programs in which we provide incentives on inputs seem to work better than those where we provide incentives on output," says Samms, cautiously. "That does not mean outputs don't work, or that inputs will produce the same result we produced in Dallas or D.C." But, he adds, "It sets a nice foundation for other research in this area," and for local districts or states to try similar experiments.

But he wants people to understand the lab is not promoting financial incentives for students. "This is not a blanket statement about incentives and using money," he stresses. "It's very particular and cautious. We're not advocating people to throw money at kids." Rather, he says, "We're really just trying to answer questions and give people the results so districts and states and the federal government can decide how to change the agenda." If someone doesn't want to use incentives, he adds, "That's okay."

At the same time, given the encouraging results, it's something that merits consideration, he says. "If you can move the needle, you've got to decide how much of your value system is really offended by giving kids $2 to read a book," Samms says. But, he emphasizes yet again, "That's not a decision we make and we're not trying to push a particular agenda."

In one of its most striking findings, the study determined that financial incentives did not decrease the students' desire to learn, the primary concern of opponents. But Kohn, for one, remains unconvinced. While noting that he has not yet read the original report in its entirety, in his eyes it found, at best, some possible short-term effects. Moreover, he emphasizes, the study must be juxtaposed with 30 years of research that shows that rewards not only are ineffective, especially in the long-run, but often counterproductive.

"Even when you can successfully manipulate people's behavior for a little while by dangling an incentive in front of them, the one result that shows up across different populations and environments is that the more you reward people for doing something -- for example learning or reading -- the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward," says Kohn. And, he adds, "As far as I know, Fryer didn't even bother to look at effects on students' interest, which is what matters most in the long term."

Daniel Pink is the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Based on extensive research, Drive argues that intrinsic rewards are much more successful than monetary and other extrinsic rewards in motivating people, whether they're students or employees. Pink has analyzed the Fryer study, and he takes issue with it.

"I'm all for trying new approaches," Pink says. "But the outcome of these four programs, to my mind, weakens the case for this approach rather than strengthens it." Only one of the four experiments was notably successful, he notes, and that was in Dallas, where money was least salient in the reward system. There, the kids were paid much less frequently than the children in other cities, and received less money, so the quid pro quo was much less clear, he says. Pink believes it's very possible the Dallas kids were responding mostly to the attention placed on reading, saying, "The same results likely could have been achieved by just as well without giving kids money."

Paying kids for doing their schoolwork "seems like a colossal waste of money -- for almost no result," he continues, adding that "searching for easy solutions, I fear, distracts us from the harder, less convenient, far more expensive work of real reform." In short, Pink says, "I'd say that $6.3 million would have been far better spent on hiring great teachers and developing existing teachers."

Despite these concerns, the study is gaining attention and supporters. Buoyed by its findings, two Colorado legislators -- one Republican, the other a Democrat -- introduced a bill in May that would pay first- through fifth-graders in high-risk schools $2 for each book they read and for which they pass a comprehension quiz. (The bill died in the House education committee in the spring.) EdLabs has also been contacted by a number of superintendents, private foundations, and others interested in trying out a similar program, and it is organizing seminars and workshops to assist them.

"We're not saying incentives are a magic bullet," adds Samms. "Maybe, for some kids in some subjects, this will help. Again, it's up to folks to decide. But in this case it did produce results, so maybe this is an option."

Matt Spengler, Ed.M.'00, EdLabs program director and a former high school principal, says the laboratory is an exciting and unique place in that it is open to all innovations in education -- and employs rigorous scientific method to see if they succeed.

"We're always looking for school districts and other partners on the ground," he says, "whether for new takes on incentives or other projects."

-- Elaine McArdle is a freelance writer who wrote a related story for the winter 2010 issue of Ed. magazine about teacher incentives.