Cash incentives for Colorado students a study in progress
There’s a reward waiting for Moises Banuelos if he passes the standardized tests in three Advanced Placement classes he’s taking this semester at Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School: $100 for each qualifying score.
“It shows that hard work pays off,” said Banuelos, 16, who hopes to receive the money from a program channeled through the Colorado Legacy Foundation. “If you really study your butt off and get a good turn out, it should be recognized with an incentive.”
As educators continue to debate the effectiveness — or even the propriety — of using financial rewards to boost academic achievement, Colorado has moved forward, and the National Math and Science Initiative-backed program soon will operate in 30 schools.
It aims to increase participation among students who traditionally don’t enroll in AP classes. Already, it has posted big gains in some schools that regard it as a cost-effective way to advance achievement.
“What we found was that the small cash incentive of $100 for each qualifying score will get your attention,” said Heather Fox, spokeswoman for the Colorado Legacy Foundation. “But you have to want to do the work. It’s a huge commitment on the part of the students.”
But the basic question, says Tony Lewis of the reform-minded Donnell-Kay Foundation, is what constitutes the primary motivator in education.
“When students are provided rigorous, relevant, exciting curricula, that’s the motivator, not money,” Lewis said. “To think that we could turn it on its head through economics, I don’t think is right — or fundamentally works.”
More than money
NMSI has pumped nearly $80 million into the program in 462 schools in nine states, but the group’s senior vice president, Gregg Fleisher, says incentives alone don’t make it work. A mix of teacher training and student support, including weekend study sessions, constitute the majority of the investment. Students generally have the $89 per test cost covered, as well.
But incentives do drive students to make “appropriate choices” and ultimately help change the academic culture within a school, he said.
“We don’t want to give the message that you get paid for doing what you’re supposed to be doing — but for achieving something difficult,” Fleisher said. “They have to work hundreds of hours to get $100 in August.”
Incentive for achievement is “consistent in the academic landscape,” he said. “We can do it the old-fashioned way, with trying to recruit students, encouraging them, having campaigns to get them to take this. But the incentives help us accelerate change in the culture in those schools.
“Once they’re in those classes, it’s all about the attainment. Nobody ever mentions the incentives.”
Michaela Taylor, 17, and a senior at Widefield High School near Colorado Springs, jumped into the school’s AP program — before she knew about the cash incentives — because she felt it gave her an edge in the college admissions process.
She recently received a check for $200. Although she plans to put it toward college books, she has seen classmates use the cash for everything from savings to a down payment on a car.
And this year, she’s taking five AP classes.
Without the incentive, she said, “I feel there would not be as many kids taking, let alone passing, AP classes. I don’t look at it as bribery.”
As an economist who has turned her attention to education, Kristin Klopfenstein has no philosophical objection to incentives for students — as long as the incentives work.
But the problem with the cash payments in the AP program, which she has studied virtually from its inception in Texas in the late 1990s, is that the data don’t show those incentives necessarily lead to better results.
Klopfenstein, now the executive director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado, examined the program in Texas expecting to publish a paper confirming the conventional wisdom that the incentives worked.
“But once I controlled for other courses that were taken, the resources of the school, other characteristics, it was quite easy to make the AP effect go away,” she said.
The problem with research supporting the AP program, she added, is that most studies haven’t controlled for other variables, so there’s no way to know whether the incentives are responsible for the bump. Plus, the schools chosen for the AP program aren’t randomly selected.
One study, by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, remains what she considers the “gold standard” of a randomized control trial. That study handed out $6.3 million to about 20,000 students at 261 urban schools to gauge the effect of incentives on achievement.
It found that achievement didn’t improve as a result of direct payments, but students responded more favorably to “input” incentives. In other words, incentives that encouraged students to do the kinds of things that lead to better results — such as reading books — are more effective than incentives for an end result like test scores.
Although Klopfenstein says proponents of the AP program are “fighting the good fight,” she remains unconvinced that the incentives work, or even that the professional development provided to teachers in the program is adequate.
“At heart, I’m an empiricist. Show me the data,” she said. “And the data I’ve seen has yet to convince me that it’s anything other than these are the kids who would have done well anyway, or they’re in a setting where there were other reforms happening.”
In the NMSI program, teachers also earn $100 per passing score. At Widefield, the average reward has been about $2,000, assistant principal for curriculum and instruction Megan Houtchins said.
But she adds that she considers the money a nice recognition for the extra hours they put in — not a game-changer.
Maureen Blunt, who has taught AP classes at Widefield for 12 years, sees the cash as an expression of commitment from the sponsoring organizations.
“But I can say for myself and those I know well,” Blunt said, “the same work would be put in without the incentive.”
In her AP literature and composition classes, Blunt sees a group of students already highly motivated. She figures that it isn’t the cash that’s driving the program.
“You don’t win the tournament to get the trophy,” she said. “That $100 is not going to be make-or-break for these kids, but it’s a little trophy with their name on it.”