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Students Perform Better When Paid

Financial incentives might close achievement gap

By Stephanie E. Herwatt, Contributing Writer

Providing financial incentives for positive behavior can lead to higher test scores among adolescents, according to a study led by Economics Professor Roland G. Fryer and released last week.

In the study, students’ test scores increased when they were paid to perform specific actions, such as reading books or wearing their uniforms.

In contrast, paying students after they earned higher test scores did not significantly change their performance on the tests.

“I think [the results] are surprising at first glance...but once you put yourself in the shoes of a student in one of these studies, it actually begins to make a good deal of sense,” Graduate School of Education professor Martin R. West said. “When you are paid to do something you may not know exactly how to accomplish, it’s not clear how you respond. But if you are being offered money to do something very concrete...then that might be easier to respond to.”

Fryer said he originally had predicted that rewarding grades and scores as opposed to actions would lead to greater academic achievement, following common economic theory.

He said he believes that his actual findings contradict this theory because students “lack the know-how to translate their excitement about the incentive structure into measurable output.”

Among the students in the study, Hispanics, boys, and students with behavioral problems showed the greatest improvements.

Although critics have long argued that paying students for results can lead to a decreased interest in learning, Fryer’s new results show no evidence to justify or support these claims.

Government Professor and author of “Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning” Paul E. Peterson argues that “rather than paying kids to learn, one should teach to their ‘price point,’ which varies with every student” and use new technology “to adapt curriculum to each child’s skills and level of mastery.”

Fryer called the study’s findings “an interesting set of first results” and said that more studies need to be carried out on the effectiveness of employing incentives.

“I’m interested in what are the four or five investments that, when put together, have the potential to close the achievement gap,” Fryer said. “Incentives could be one of [them], I don’t know yet. This is the first kind of large scale experiment in urban schools on incentives, and I hope it’s not the last.”

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