Professor Stephen Gorard suggests cash incentives might help improve performance

Others are not so sure


Incentivising children from poor homes with cash rewards to attend school, do their homework and read books is the most effective way to improve their exam results, a major research project has concluded.  The lure of money is a far more effective way to boost the attainment of disadvantaged students than other large-scale initiatives to raise aspirations, according to a review of more than 165,000 research studies and journal articles. But offering money in direct exchange for final results has little impact, because children from poor backgrounds do not know what steps to take to succeed, according to the research. Instead, children should be rewarded for the small steps they need to take to achieve good grades.  The conclusions, from Professor Stephen Gorard of the UK’s University of Birmingham, were presented recently at the American Educational Research Association conference in San Francisco. They draw on research completed in Australia, Britain and the US. Stephen Gorard is Professor of Education Research at the University of Birmingham, Principal Methods Expert for the US government Institute of Education Science, a member of the ESRC Grants awarding Panel, and Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences. His work concerns ‘ the robust evaluation of education as a process from “cradle to grave”, focused on issues of equity and effectiveness.’  Professor Gorard recommends that schools put aside up to US$200 (£130) a year for poor students, a portion of which is taken away each time a student fails to meet set goals on attendance and work. (ie incentives framed as losses-which some advocate for teachers too) .In the UK, the money could be aimed at students who are eligible for free school meals, (FSM is a measure of deprivation) although other countries have tried a tiered approach, Professor Gorard said.  His research, according to  the TES, may call into question government investment in schemes that attempt to raise student aspiration on the basis that aspiration alone will improve results. Looking at the evidence in the various research reports, which collectively involved more than a million students, he found that neither parental expectations of educational success nor students’ own aspirations made any difference to their actual grades.  “Aspiration could be an indication of success, not its cause,” Professor Gorard said. “Anyone with a sole concern to improve educational outcomes for those most at risk would be advised to seek an intervention elsewhere.”


By contrast, when students were offered financial rewards for academic performance, there was a noticeable difference. Several studies, involving more than 40,000 students in total, considered the effects of ‘educational bribery’. When students from state schools in four US cities – Chicago, Dallas, New York and Washington, DC – were offered financial rewards in exchange for good test results, it did not have a significant effect.  Professor Gorard said that this was because students wanted the cash but did not know how to go about earning it. “Interviews with the students suggest that, although they may be excited about the incentives, they do not actually know how to improve their grades,” he said.  Professor Gorard said that while investment in initiatives to raise aspiration might not improve results, it could have other benefits. “Attainment is important but it is only one possible educational outcome,” he said. “Others – such as future participation, well-being, preparation for citizenship, resilience and happiness – could be just as important.  This looks suspiciously like marketization of student performance, which some believe is simply a step too far. Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard, one of the most influential  thinkers globally, opposes marketization, (though not always) as  he says, it  can degrade and corrupts social values. “Certain goods have value in ways that go beyond the utility they give individual buyers and sellers,” he writes. “How a good is allocated may be part of what makes it the kind of good it is.”  Writing for Prospect magazine recently in an article titled ‘If I ruled the world’ he said  that the notion that economics offers a value-neutral science of human behaviour is implausible but increasingly influential. He writes ‘Consider the growing use of cash incentives to solve social problems. The NHS is experimenting with what some have called “health bribes”—cash rewards to people for losing weight, quitting smoking, or taking their prescribed medications. In the United States, some school districts have tried to improve academic achievement among disadvantaged students by offering them cash rewards for good grades, high test scores, or reading books. A charity that operates in the US and the UK offers drug-addicted women £200 to be sterilised, or to accept long-term birth control devices. As ruler of the world, I would not necessarily abolish these schemes. But I would insist that we ask, in each case, whether the cash incentive might degrade the goods at stake, or drive out non-market attitudes worth caring about. For example, if we pay kids to read books, do we simply add an additional incentive to whatever motivations may already exist? Or, do we teach them that reading is a chore, and so run the risk of corrupting or crowding out the intrinsic love of learning?’


The TES pointed out last week that Schools in the UK have experimented with various types of reward schemes to motivate children, to varying degrees of success, including the widely used Vivo Miles system, in which students collect credits towards prizes including iPods.But David Day, principal of the Isle of Sheppey Academy in Kent, South East England, told TES that he had dropped the scheme because the results did not justify the cost. He has now turned to the cheaper alternative of writing postcards and letters to students when they perform well or show a good attitude or attendance.  “We felt that the power of words could be more influential than the power of monetary rewards,” he said. “Children like to be praised. Ultimately, students have to have it in their hearts and minds; the ambition for success cannot be bought. It’s self-motivation that we must engender.”  The fact is that although cash incentives are used in all walks of life, they are rarely used with students, even in US school districts.  A recent randomised study of three school districts in Chicago found that incentives do in fact affect student performance, although there is substantial variation across settings. Incentives framed as losses have consistently large effects relative to other educational interventions (0:12 0:22 standard deviations). The researchers found, though, mixed evidence on the impact of incentives framed as gains with large effects in two school districts (0:2 0:4 Standard deviations) and no  effects  in the third. They also found  that that while older students are more responsive to financial incentives younger students are not and respond better to non-financial incentives.  The conclusion of this study is that both financial and non-financial incentives are useful tools  to help increase student motivation and effort, but  that there are important factors that will impact on whether or not these incentives are effective, or not.

The Impact of Short-term Incentives on Student Performance Steven D. Levitt, John A. List, Susanne Neckermann and Sally Sado -September, 2011


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