TCS Daily

Giving Incentives to Students

By Steven McMullen - February 12, 2007 12:00 AM

In the swarm of debates about education reform there is a clear belief that the solution lies with teachers and schools. Arguments of this type abound: Teachers are paid too little. Teachers need pay incentives to excel. Teachers are not qualified. Poor teachers are not replaced. Schools lack adequate funding. Schools face too much regulation. Schools face too little competition and accountability.

One agent is conspicuously missing from these arguments: the student. Students are not ignored entirely in education policy discussions, but when they are addressed, they are treated like pawns being pushed around by social forces, government policies and curriculum, with no power to determine their own outcome.

We know, however, that this picture is not accurate. Much of the gap between the successful and unsuccessful students occurs within schools, not between them, indicating that all of the funding choices and policies that vary from school to school do not tell a large part of why students succeed or fail.

The allure of these school and teacher based solutions lies in the fact that they seem easy to control. The students themselves, and the important choices that they make, remain outside of the domain of policymakers, and are thus ignored. But this assumption is incorrect.

This is where one of Charles Murray's recent essays is relevant to the discussion. His argument -- that a student's natural ability, or IQ, is an important factor determining whether they will end up successful -- is undoubtedly true. But focusing on IQ too much can distract us from the important fact that many students in the US are not achieving up to their ability. The dismal performance on many state graduation exams, which are well within the range of what 99% of students could achieve, is enough to illustrate that IQ is not the only relevant constraint for most unsuccessful students.

What I propose should be given more attention is the set of choices that students make, choices having a huge effect on achievement. Focusing on one dimension of student's decisions -- the amount of time and effort put into homework -- will illustrate the point.

According to a rudimentary analysis of student data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, the amount of time that students in the 10th grade spend on homework per week is a better predictor of test scores in math than the experience level of the student's teachers, and a far better predictor than class size, even controlling for social and demographic characteristics and past performance.

In order to illustrate the magnitude of the effect of homework time, consider this: increasing time spent on homework by half of a standard deviation (about 2 hours and 15 minutes per week) is enough to eliminate the mathematics performance gap between male and female students, or the gap between Hispanic and white students. A full standard deviation increase in time spent on homework would make up for about 72% of the national mathematics performance gap between African American and white students. It is clear that homework specifically, or student effort broadly, is a major determinant of student performance and achievement.

While convincing students to do their homework is certainly no panacea, it is at least as promising as many of the more popular policy proposals.

But there remains a question: how can we influence the choices that students make? This is where any economist will recommend examining the incentives that students face. I offer three possible ways to influence students' choices:

  • Examine the labor market opportunities that students face: if a particular student does not readily see good opportunities before her/him that depend on their academic performance, the incentive to excel in school will be limited.

  • Grade students partially based on improvement from one year to the next: the students at the very top and very bottom of each class both might have little incentive to work, those at the top because they can coast through their classes, those at the bottom because they have little chance of catching up. This can be fixed.

  • Pay students to achieve: as simple as it sounds, we could experiment with monetarily rewarding students for learning according to either their achievement level or growth in achievement on standardized exams.

The bottom line is that students are people making choices. We should create a system that recognizes that, and recognizes that schools and teachers are only two of many inputs that affect a child's academic achievement.

Steven McMullen is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at UNC Chapel Hill doing researching on secondary education.



I bet if you paid students to do homework, you'd get alot more homework done. Problem is, I don't think the current system could support it without an intolerable amount of corruption.

Teachers, students and ?????
Is there something missing?

How about the, gasp, parents?

Why do some students spend more time on homework? Could it be the parents?

From whom do some students learn the value of education? Could it be the parents?

Sorry soon to be doc, the biggest factor in whether children perform to their potential is their parents. Your solution won't work but it will cost a bunch of money and grow the power of government schools. I'm sure your associates in academia will love it!

So We Should. . .?
Okay, so parents are the problem. And?

Have any ideas on how to get parents interested in their kids success?

The power of parents
I agree with you. Parents are huge. Parents are not part of the education reform debate either, though. When students make choices about their education, often what is really happening is that the parents are making choices for the students.

Parents, however, are even less controllable than students, and to the extent that we want to improve education, our power over parents is too limited to do much good.

Students do make choices for themselves, and these choices have consequences, especially as students get into high school. It is worth paying attention to those choices and making sure the incentives are aligned properly. We can't just say that it is all dependent on parents and then give up.

More complex society requires greater investment in planning
Right now most high school students take classes based on favored teachers, what classes thier friends are taking, or what sounds interesting. We need to motivate students to think ahead, where do they want to be at 25 and how are they going to get there? Are they on track to become an engineer, mechanic, or policeman? We need to drill the idea into students that what they do and how they perform matters, and we need to show them how and why.

This should be the job of parents, however most parents are struggling to maintain a standard of living to the detriment of thier childrens education and upbringing.

Better teachers and better schools would be very nice, however we also need to sell students on why thier education is important.

Monetary Incentives
During Middle School I finally got fed up with what I thought was my daughter's underperformance in school. She was making primarily Bs, a few Cs and only a few As. Her aptitude tests showed great potential but she wasn't realizing it.

I am a very involved parent, but there are only so many hours in the day and you can't constantly harass your children into doing homework. It just causes other problems. We had many arguments in our home about school and homework.

And then I decided to apply a little economic theory to the problem. I'm an investment advisor and have studied economics for many years. I am a believer in incentives in the real economy so I wondered if it would work to improve my daughter's grades. Here's the deal I offered her:

If she receives an A in a subject for a term (we're on a quarterly system) she is paid $50.
If she receives a B in a subject for a term she gets nothing for that class. I told her a B is the minimum grade I expect and therefore it did not deserve merit pay.
If she receives a C in a subject for a term she must pay me $50.
If she were to receive a grade, in any subject, less than a C, it would cancel all pay for As, but not the payback for Cs.

At the time, she told me that it wouldn't make any difference because incentives were not the problem. Funnily though, she couldn't express to me what the problem was. I told her that incentives would work on her even if she didn't realize it.

She is now a Junior at Design and Architecture Senior High School in Miami. It is a small specialized art and design school with approximately 400 students. They interview around 1000 applicants each year for the 100 slots. The school requires 8 classes per term rather than the normal 6. It is rated one of the best (top 20) public schools in the country. Her GPA is 4.75 (they get extra points for Advanced Placement classes). She's considering colleges now: School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum School in Boston (dual degree with Tufts), Columbia, Dartmouth and the San Francisco Art Institute. Last term cost me $400 of the best dollars I've spent in my entire life. Incentives work.

To all three of you: Really!!??
Do any of you have kids? I am very involved with my kids and the school and I have one of each major type in school.

My Junior is the classic underachiever. She tests out above average and brings home Cs, Ds and the occasional A and F. If she likes the teacher and the class (such as Geometry) she gets Bs and As. If she doesn't, it's down the drain time.

My fifth grader is the the struggler. She test out just at average (sometimes a bit below in some areas) and works hard for her Cs and Bs.

My fourth grader is tests out near genius and does less than the fifth grader and a bit more than the Junior but does enough to maintain her straight As.

I've spent more time working with the Junior and the fifth grader and working with their teachers. They still struggle.

In the end, parents are important, but ever kid is an individual and has different traits; even within the same family. It is the kids who are most missing in the equation and do need more attention if we want to see improvement.

But teachers also need to be much better; and they need to be more even handed. In elementary the cute quiet workers get a pass; wild loud ones (usually boys) the teachers want to drug and they quickly find themselves unable to do anything right. I've seen very bright children completely beaten by the system by the third grade. Some are simply unmanagable and the parents need a lickin'. But most simply tried to "participate" and never got the chance. After a while they clam up and quit.

Oddly, I remember teacherslike that, but I remember them as being few and far between. Perhaps the pressure we are putting on teachers and kids is too much, perhaps the system is completely wacked. Whatever the situation, I've seen a lot more of it than I ever had to put up with as a kid.

That's too bad. While there were a few teachers I didn't much like, the vast majority were very good; and some were excellent! Some of the people I remember most in my life are my teachers.

Are you nuts!!?
The most focused student I ever met happened to be my own brother. He knew what he wanted ot do (at least in general) by Jr. High and then went after it. But the specifics changed several times and he continues to consider making job changes within his field at 32.

He might be the only kid I know who was able to begin working toward a specific field of study at 15.

I have a young step sister who is presently in college and still hasn't fallen on a specific work idea. It looks like she will graduate next year with a degree in physical therapy. She started school looking at phychology, went toward nursing and now is headed toward the present field. And she is also a focused individual!

Asking the vast majority of kids to begin making career choices at 14 or 15 is rediculous; it didn't happen 50 years ago, didn't happen 20 years ago and won't happen 20 years from now.

Why are we in such a hurry to make our kids grow up? Maybe because too many my age never did; and someone has to take care of them!

All over the world education system is baseless and hopeless
Most important thing in education is we must creat such a atmocipher that evry student take interest in knowlede, we must change entire education system it must be joyful enjoyable. Today all over world we are giving more important to memmory, smartness, I.Q.,grade, this unnessaryly increase in student inferity complex,smart student try to win the favour of teacher.those who are not smart they hate school and education, we much change this all and increase interest in knowledge

A students view..
Honestly I think all the arguments you cited at the beginning are bigger problems than the solutions you're suggesting.

Pay me to do well on standardized tests? Ok so maybe that'll get me to stop making art of out of scantron bubbles. Actually I highly doubt it.

Grade based on improvement? What a joke. At best that would get me to try less hard in the beginning so I could get better grades for not trying in the future.

The problem with our school system is mainly that it's run by the government (and therefor sucks by default). Our teachers are flat out terrible, I could do better than most of them myself. We don't fire nearly enough of them. There really isn't any competition in education at all.

Having good parents can help, sure, but I had the 'best' parents out of anyone I know (in terms of being supportive and involved in my life goes) and I'm not getting straight A's. I could very easily if I wanted to, all my teachers always knew that, but I never wanted to. School is a complete waste of time for anyone with even slightly above average intelligence.

The whole system is setup to fail and your suggestions aren't going to change that.

A Student's view

If you are right, and you could have done well but did not want to, then your story is a perfect example of the system getting the incentives wrong. It may be that monetary payment systems and grades based on improvement would not have helped you, but the fundamental problem has to be that there was not sufficient cost to your lack of effort, or not enough payoff for success.

I agree with that completely. I guess it doesn't really matter what incentives you give, at least to a person with my personality, because forcing me to spend time in school when I knew full well my time could be better spent elsewhere was never going to work.

The amount of money you'd have to pay me for the waste of time I always viewed high school as would have been too expensive even for our government to afford.

I'm in college now so it's not as bad; I just don't show up unless I need to. In reality college doesn't work as well as it should because most people shouldn't be here. Hell I shouldn't even be here. I get to hang out and party all the time while skipping classes and just going in to ace tests, all while making my family happy and earning some piece of paper society finds valuable. I guess it could be worse. If it required any real effort though, I certainly wouldn't be here.

Ahhh a youngster modeled after my own reckless teen heart.
As I remember those teen and early 20s years, I find that a real challenge by an interesting teacher was all I needed. Knowing I could always find work made school that much less of an need. Maybe for $1,500 (in 1975) a school quarter you might have gotten my attention through incentives. College was just as you describe for me as well; more wine and women than work. (I still don't understand the whole idea that college is tough; for who??)

Trust me, you'll do fine. A couple of notes of advice though - Don't get too trashed when out partying and be careful of the college bimbos, some of them have fangs.

Parents and Schedules
As a parent of an 8th grader and a 5th grader, I know what it takes to keep my children focused on their school work. My children spend several hours a day doing homework. Many times they don't understand the assignments they were given and my wife and I end up teaching the concept instead of the teacher. I find that the schools seem to be more interested in cramming as many concepts as possible instead of making sure the children master them before moving on.

Another issue is that many parents are too busy with work and managing a home to spend enough time with helping their kids with homework. Many kids do not develop good study habits because there is no one around to teach them. The kids that learn good study habits and keep up with the homework do well, but the ones that don't keep up fall farther and farther behind. If you want to improve the schools then increase the school day from 6 to 9 hours. Have the teachers spend more time working with the kids showing them their mistakes and helping them complete their assignments. Make the kids complete their work in school instead of at home where they may have little or no support from their parents. This may also help keep some kids out of trouble because they will have less free time when parents are not around.

The schools should also run year round. Instead of taking 21/2 months off in the summer, time off should be spread out voer the year so that they don't have to keep relearning the lessons from several months ago. It is time to move our schools to a schedule that is needed for a modern 21st century society instead on a 19th century agricultural society.

No Subject
There is no reason a career plan can't be forward thinking and flexible. If you ask a kid what they will be doing at 25 enough they might eventually stop to think about it and realize that even if they don't stick to technical writing or nursing, it's one heck of a lot better than being an associate at WalMart.

No Subject
Attempting to teach other peoples children what they don't care to learn for half the salery a similary educated person would make in the bussiness world is hardly a job most people would consider.

It's hard to be picky about teachers when your lucky to find people willing to take the job in the first place.

Nice thought
But it doesn't work in practice. Do you have kids? I gave two example of the best I know and they had no real clue at 15 or 16 what they wanted to do at 25 or 30. I know of a doctor who never considered medical school until her second year in college.

If you work on them, they will occasionallly come up with an idea by 18 or 19. A friend of mine graduated HS and was looking at becoming a lawyer; that is what he now is, after changing majors twice in college. But these are the exceptions acougar, not the rule. I myself went to college to be a teacher, ended up with an education in electronics and spent most of my adult life working in the journalism field.

I think the best idea was that of my cousin. She didn't go to college until she was 25. She then knew what she wanted and went for it. 10-years after getting her masters she still works in her chosen field of study. This is a rarity for kids who go to college right out of high school, in my experience.

I'm sorry, but my experience as a parent, working with teens, and in discussions with teachers and college kids, tells me the belief you can focus teens on a field of study and work is marginal. For the top 10% you will have some success, forget it for the other 90%.

students and learning
I totally agree with antsoair. Year round school, longer school day would go a long way to improving this dismal situation in our country. Also what we need is cultural emphasis on the importance of knowledge and knowing things. This could be done by the media and community leaders and teachers themselves and PARENTS!. Learning is a sacred obligation by everyone and this message should be sent out every way we can.
When we have the likes of rappers, Brittany Spears and Paris Hilton as icons to emmulate what can we expect from our youngsters. Instead of these types we should be hero-worshipping our scientists, writers, and discoverers.

What a crock
Teachers make about the same as RNs and most other bachelor's degreed individuals on average. I guess your a teacher as they are the only ones who try and make this arguement. Every time I see this arguement presented, K-12 teachers are comparing their pay to Doctors, Lawyers, MBAs and others with more education and ability.

Sorry, the "more money" arguement doesn't pan out. Good teachers will take pay cuts to teach in private schools, many aren't qualified to teach finger painting to four-year olds yet are in a chemistry classroom, etc.

I think a majority of teachers are in it for the "right reasons", but a large minority are not; and many of them couldn't get work doing anything else.

And some college "professors" are even worse.

Generally, schools are not trying to find teachers. The balance is just about right; enough to go around, but not so many that the job market is saturated. It is good for the teachers union, and few, if any, schools are suffering for a lack of teachers.

Nice wives tale you are spinning, but it is nothing more than that.

I agree to a point
First off, teachers are giving entirely too much homework. Are they teaching nothing in class? Teachers are paid entirely too much for me to have to do their job, but that is often the case.

But I would not increase the school day that much. Right now, in our school, the kids are in the building for 7 1/2 hours with just a 1/2 hour lunch. Increasing the day too much more would not get more done. One of the reasons we have kids with weight problems is that lunch break and recess times have been cut to nothing. In my opinion, if teachers can't get the job done in 7 hours of classroom time (in jr. high and high school) and 6 to 6 1/2 hours (in elementary) then we should be taking a look at the teachers and the cirrculum.

Year around schooling (with a 4-6 week summer break) is fine in urban schools, but, believe it or not, there are still a lot of people in this country who live around an agricultural season. This needs to be an individual school board decision, not some nationwide mandate.

All in all, for someone who lives in New York or Chicago (or even Cincinnati or Phoenix) the year around school and longer school day is probably a good idea. For someone who lives in a more rural setting, the school day could be lengthened a bit but the present school year needs to remain.

but not relavent.

Year around schooling would accomplish little, but it could be a help in urban schools.

The rest of this is just pipe-dreaming. This has never existed and never will. We have always had bad "icons", and Hollyweed has been the biggest producer of negative role models for the past 100 years. I find it intriguing that each successive generation breeds those talking about how bad the marilyn Monroes, Liz Taylors, Chers or Brittney Spears types are for our society.

Scientists, writers and discoverers are wonderful figures for history books, but they have seldom been "hero-worshipped" in their lifetimes. Sorry, but I doubt they ever will be.

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