October 13th, 2011

DISCUSS: Should We Be Paying Students?




Should we be offering extrinsic rewards — such as payment — to students for academic success? We convened several experts to discuss. You may also be interested in our report for PBS NewsHour on this topic, which is embedded above.


Beth Hennessey, Wellesley College

The intrinsically-motivated may suffer

Beth Hennessey is a psychology professor at Wellesley College; she specializes in the role played by motivation in the creative process — and in how the environment (especially classroom environments) can impact motivational orientation.

Motivation is an especially complex and ephemeral entity — none of us are motivated to do good work 100% of the time. Motivation is not simply a question of personality or temperament. Our environment plays a strong role in determining our motivational orientation.

Before attending graduate school, I taught in a mixed classroom of 5, 6 and 7-year-olds. I had the privilege of spending three years with each of my students, and over time I found that many kids who started out as enthusiastic and inquisitive kindergarteners eventually transformed into jaded and burnt out second graders. I had all sorts of rewards built into my classroom routine. I thought I was doing my students a favor. But were I to go back to that elementary school today, I would do things differently. I would no longer include incentive systems as part of my classroom routine.

Psychologists distinguish between two types of motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the motivation to do something out of sheer interest in an activity itself. When students are intrinsically motivated, they find their studies more enjoyable. Their learning is deeper and longer lasting. And when confronted with an open-ended task, they are more likely to come up with a creative idea or a creative solution. Conversely, when students approach a school assignment with extrinsic motivation, they are engaging in that activity for some goal outside of the task — a promised reward, an impending evaluation, etc. Although extrinsic motivation can ensure that work gets done and that it gets done on time, it is especially detrimental to creativity.

Social psychologists have long argued about the use of rewards and other incentives in classroom situations. What experts on both sides of the fence need to realize is that paying students to attend school or to earn high grades is neither inherently good nor inherently bad.

If a child or adolescent has lost absolutely all interest, all willingness to go to school, we should not worry about stifling their creativity or dampening their enjoyment of their studies. Our goal must be to get that student back into the classroom. Only then can we work to help them slowly regain their intrinsic motivation and excitement about learning. It is the students who already approach their assignments with intrinsic interest who are most likely to suffer from promises of $5 for every “A” or a new computer for a semester without any school absences. Hundreds — maybe thousands — of research investigations show that for this group, the expectation of a reward is bound to kill both their creativity and their excitement about learning.


Thomas Dee, University of Virginia

Beware unintended consequences here

Thomas S. Dee is Professor of Public Policy and Economics at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

A large part of what already distinguishes highly effective teachers and schools is their capacity to motivate and engage students towards fulfilling their intellectual potential. Can student-facing financial incentives provide an effective, complementary way to institutionalize and scale up these types of important teacher and school practices?

In general, the recent empirical evidence — much of it from carefully-designed experimental studies conducted in real-world settings — is
encouraging. Field-based trials from both developing and developed countries suggest that incentives can generate meaningful improvements in important student outcomes and appear to do so in diverse settings (e.g., elementary, secondary, and post-secondary environments). However, as with many sorts of policy initiatives, the devil’s in the details. For student incentives to work well, they appear to need a number of common-sense design features. For example, incentives are likely to work best when they are simple enough to be clearly understood by students. What outcomes get targeted is another key design feature. Incentives will work best when they focus on outcomes over which students clearly feel they have control. So, for example,
targeting school attendance may be more attractive than targeting possibly unrealistic or poorly understood test-score goals.

Future pilots of incentive schemes should be informed by these design considerations. And they should be coupled with rigorous assessment so that they can be improved and that genuinely effective practices can proliferate. A legitimate, ongoing concern with student-based financial incentives involves whether providing such extrinsic motivation degrades students’ intrinsic motivation to achieve academically. For example, will students who have become accustomed to explicit rewards do as well in times and settings where those rewards do not exist? The recent field-based evidence suggests that this concern may be overdrawn. However, the possibility of such “unintended consequences” should also feature prominently in future assessments of incentive policies.


Brett Jones, Virginia Tech

The first focus should be teaching methods and curricula

Brett D. Jones is a professor at Virginia Tech in the Educational Psychology program, researching student motivation.

Researchers have documented that when individuals enjoy an activity, paying them can make the activity less enjoyable. Therefore, it would be foolish to pay students who already enjoy school because doing so might actually decrease their motivation to engage in school work — and the problem with paying students who don’t enjoy school is that these students will not continue to work hard in school unless they continue to get paid. Basic psychological research indicates that when the payment stops, so does students’ motivation. An exception to these findings would be a student (who initially did not like school and was not working hard) who started working hard when she got paid because she enjoyed the success she was achieving and/or she became interested in the content material. This way of motivating students would have to be monitored very closely to ensure that money was only given to these types of students in these circumstances. Implementing this type of system correctly would be a logistical impossibility for most teachers and administrators. Therefore, I do not advocate paying students to attend or engage in school activities.

My research focuses on instructional methods that motivate students to engage in school, and I would like to see policymakers and educators address why some students are not motivated to engage — as opposed to simply bribing students to engage. Researchers have found that teachers’ instructional methods can have a major impact on students’ motivation. Yet, teachers are limited in their ability to motivate any one student because of many factors outside of school that impact a student’s motivation. Different students and communities have different needs, but in most cases I would recommend trying to motivate students by improving teaching methods and curricula, and addressing larger societal problems (such as poverty and access to resources).


Sam Abrams, Teachers College, Columbia University

Achieving excellence in school is a complex endeavor

Samuel E. Abrams is a visiting scholar at Teachers College, Columbia University writing a book on school reform; he was previously a high school history teacher for 18 years.

Roland Fryer’s recent experiment of conferring cash bonuses to students for academic gains in 203 underprivileged public schools across Chicago, Dallas, and New York sheds much light on the learning process.

Many economists and policymakers have seen such cash bonuses as the answer to motivating poor students. Fryer’s two-year experiment, after all, cost $9.4 million in bonuses and involved 27,000 students. And yet the only statistically significant outcome was for second-graders in Dallas whose primary language is English. After getting paid $2 per book for up to 20 books per semester, this cohort posted statistically significant better results on year-end state reading tests than peers in a control group. However, this didn’t hold for ninth-graders in Chicago — paid for high grades every five weeks—or fourth- and seventh-graders in New York — paid for high scores on ten interim assessments.

While the National Math and Science Initiative claims that its cash bonuses over the last three years of $100 to students earning a 3 or better on Advanced Placement exams (along with matching bonuses to teachers) have significantly boosted participation and results at underprivileged schools, the impact is far from clear. NMSI in addition provides extra lab equipment to participating schools, intensive professional development to teachers, and afternoon tutoring and Saturday sessions to students.

Rewards clearly work for specific tasks. M&M’s have helped countless parents toilet-train their children. Youngsters avidly mow lawns, rake leaves, and shovel snow for spending money. Students may likewise do what’s necessary to achieve good grades if paid. But achieving excellence in school, much as on a basketball court or in an orchestra, is a far more complex endeavor, requiring passion and thoughtful instruction to nurture and guide it. This is understood in Winnetka, Highland Park, and Scarsdale. It should be understood in Chicago, Dallas, and New York.


Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia, Duke University

A quick fix sends the wrong message

Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia is an assistant professor of psychology and education at Duke University.

Paying students represents a form of extrinsic motivation. Several research syntheses of more than 100 empirical studies indicate that extrinsic rewards that are tangible (such as money), expected (students know that they will receive the rewards prior to engaging in the behavior), and contingent (such as paying students to show up to school) are especially detrimental because these rewards are overly controlling and undermine feelings of autonomy. Thus, payment for test scores, grades, or school attendance will significantly undermine intrinsic motivation for school. By paying students, one runs the real risk of undermining any existing motivation in students and failing to sufficiently motivate those students who are not engaged.

While enhancing student motivation is not an easy task, we would be better served by enacting broader reforms to our education system. For instance, shifting the focus away from constant testing and ranking of students and schools made prominent through No Child Left Behind and moving toward a focus on developing student competence and providing an in-depth, challenging curriculum that helps students to see connections between school subjects and real-world topics would be a good start. Providing students with challenging tasks that can be successfully accomplished with effort and the use of effective learning strategies is also key for supporting motivation. A quick fix, such as adding financial incentives for students, sends the wrong message about the purpose of schooling and is ineffective for promoting lasting motivation.


Jim Appleton, Gwinnett County Public Schools

Shift the discussion towards achieving balance

Dr. James Appleton is Coordinator of Research and Evaluation for the Gwinnett County Public Schools in Suwanee, GA; he presents nationally on data-driven decision-making and student engagement.

Paying students for attendance or performance is sometimes seen as focusing on the symptoms rather than the underlying causes of student behaviors. Motivation theorists might suggest that pay could undermine students’ intrinsic motivation to learn — the rub is that we are preparing students for a world where people are paid to engage in tasks for which they have varying levels of intrinsic enjoyment. Also, some might argue that grades themselves are extrinsic motivators and educators shape student behaviors with these quite frequently.

The debate should shift from whether to extrinsically reinforce students with rewards such as pay to how to do so in a manner that continues to motivate them to master content and maintain a desire to learn throughout their lives. There is value in both extrinsic and intrinsic reinforcement when done well. Recent research suggests that extrinsic rewards work well for discrete tasks which students understand clearly — for example, reading a certain number of books — rather than tasks for which specific behaviors are not as clearly related to outcomes — e.g., improving performance on state tests. There are also times where the capacity to intervene with students is limited by the ability to get them within the school walls. In these instances, extrinsic reinforcement for attending may be a necessary first step to improving motivation to learn and outcomes for these students.

A good approach would seem to be a balance between a focus on student intrinsic motivation and a thoughtful, pragmatic use of extrinsic reinforcement.


Bob Stimolo, School Market Research Institute

With NCLB, one size does not fit all

Bob Stimolo is the president of the School Market Research Institute.

For a very long time, the prevailing concept about how children should be taught centered on the classroom teacher. It was the classroom teacher that was in the best position to know how to teach and what materials were best — and it was the classroom teacher who knew best how to evaluate student progress. Then, along came No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and everything changed.

NCLB declared that there was a universal approach to education and that all students could be equally proficient. NCLB stated that standards could be set, met and measured through common assessments. Educators began teaching to the test. Eventually controversy grew over this approach to education and NCLB detractors focused on the validity of measuring success through assessments and testing. Now NCLB is under attack from every sector, including the Department of Education, as being unworkable. At the heart of the issue is the inability to find a reliable methodology for measuring outcomes.

The National Research Council of the National Academies recently released a report entitled Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education. The report concludes “tests used in education fall short of providing a complete measure of educational outcomes in many ways”. If test results are not a true measure of either the quality of teaching or learning, how can we draw conclusions as to what techniques are effective?

If NCLB has taught us anything, it should be that one size does not fit all. Merit pay for students? Why not? It won’t work for all students, but certainly should work for some. It’s another tool we can make available to educators to help them succeed.


Hedy Chang, Attendance Works

Simple rewards can go a long way in motivation

Hedy Chang is the director of Attendance Works.

Research and common sense tell us that school attendance is critically important to student achievement. As early as kindergarten, too many absences can translate into academic troubles in later years, especially for children living in poverty. By 6th grade, poor attendance is a proven warning sign that a student, rich or poor, will drop out of high school. By 9th grade, excessive absences can predict dropout rates with more accuracy than 8th grade test scores.

But how far should we go to motivate students to come to school? Does it pay to pay students just to show up?

Some schools, of course, have tried that approach with some success. These include the esteemed Harlem Children’s Zone and its Promise Academy Charter Schools, where high school students can earn as much as $120 a month for attending school and doing well.

“People say, ‘Well Geoff, look, don’t you want kids to do it for the intrinsic value?’” founder Geoffrey Canada said in an interview. “Sure, I’d love them to do it for the intrinsic value. And until then, I’d love them to do it for money. I just want them to do it.”

But not every school wants to, or can afford to, offer money. A Grand Rapids, Mich. school rewards kids with ice cream socials and their pictures on the school television after one month of perfect attendance. A Georgia high school gives 10 points on each final exam to every students who miss two or fewer days in a semester. One California elementary school awards 15 extra minutes of recess to the class with the best attendance at the end of the week. The principal takes the class, giving the teacher an extra-long lunch break and an incentive to encourage good attendance.

Our Attendance Works handout on incentives (PDF) provides these simple guidelines:

  • Incentives are most effective when part of a comprehensive approach that includes outreach to families with more significant challenges to attendance.
  • Simple rewards can go a long way toward motivating students.
  • Student can often tell us what they consider a meaningful incentive.
  • Interclass competition is a powerful motivator.
  • Avoid recognizing only perfect attendance. Students should be rewarded for improved attendance, as well.
  • Reward timeliness not just showing up to school.

Julian Betts, UCSD

Three objections, analyzed

Julian Betts is a professor of economics at the University of California-San Diego, as well as Executive Director of the San Diego Education Research Alliance (SanDERA).

The idea that we could boost student achievement by paying students for performing well has been gaining in currency.

Economists are (in)famous for eschewing technocratic solutions to problems in favor of looking at people’s incentives and asking how one might redirect people’s behavior in societally-useful ways. (Why spend a billion dollars to build a new bridge beside an existing but overburdened bridge, argues the economist, when charging a toll at rush hour on the existing bridge will encourage people to alter the timing of their trips or to find an alternative route?)

So it should come as no surprise that an economist, Dr. Roland Fryer, has engaged in a series of experiments to find out if paying students to work harder at school is a magic bullet for increasing student achievement. So far, his results seem to suggest that paying students for better test scores or grades is not very effective, but paying students to undertake specific actions, such as reading more books, can lead to meaningful gains in student skills.
I see several obvious objections to the notion that we should begin paying students for effort, but only one, which has more to do with psychology than economics, deeply troubles me.

The first objection is that it is sickening to contemplate spending tax dollars on paying students at a time when school districts nationwide are being forced to savage their budgets. While I do feel queasy about this, it is not a fundamental objection so much as a question of timing. When the Great Recession at last finishes, why not spend something on student effort? This is especially true given the fairly dismal results researchers have found from investing in professional development for teachers, or the small gains to students from one of the most expensive reforms, reducing class size.

A second objection to paying students is that this is somehow un-American. Isn’t this a bribe? My goodness, next employers will begin paying end-of-year bonuses to their most productive workers. Oh, well, I guess employers already do that, but that is a game for adults. Bad example. OK, bringing this idea to a younger group, wouldn’t it be crazy to pay college students for good exam results? But scholarships, which can be retracted if a student does not perform well, do exactly this.

The third objection, and the one that really bothers me, is the question about whether extrinsic rewards can ever create in students intrinsic motivation to succeed. Maybe paying elementary school students to read more books engenders a lifelong love of reading in children, which would be all to the good. But will students be so conditioned to receiving money that they will just give up once the carrot is taken away? If so, students could gain temporarily, while the payments are in place, only to suffer later in school or college when teachers instead begin to rely solely on students’ intrinsic motivation, which may be non-existent by that point. We will have to follow participants in these experiments for many years to learn the answers to these questions. I worry about what the answer may be.

For now, some well-timed kind words from a teacher to a student who is making a real effort may be a much cheaper and more reliable way to increase students’ motivation to excel. But I wouldn’t mind at all if somebody proves me wrong.

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10 comments

1- there are few if any controlled studies showing these financial incentives work to improve student achievement, even in the short run. Thus they are a waste of money, esp. given huge budget cuts to schools.
2- the vast majority of research shows that financial incentives to students undermine long term intrinsic motivation;
3- I don’t know of a single one of these experiments, including Fryer’s, that clearly laid out the long term risks to parents, to allow for informed consent.

Thus these proposals violate most ethical norms re experimentation.

I am a parent to four highly motivated children that have earned high scores, won many awards and I have NEVER paid them, rewarded them with a fiscal bounty for their achievements. Education is an important part of the developmental process for children. If they are taught that they are to be rewarded, as many other parents do, they are being conditioned to work for grades. It eliminates the inherent curiosity and drive that I spent many years helping develop in them and it debases the experience. I do understand the need to get the kids back into the classroom, but rewarding someone for their responsibilities sends a poor message and kids like mine that earn their high averages and get nothing in return but a great education. The concentration should be how to motivate and help kids thrive with goals that are in step with their needs and help them acclimate to the education system with the respect and understanding of what a good education will do to enhance their lives and make them want to be there and do well in their studies. If you pay for performance- be sure to pay the kid that does well everyday and brings ideas and questions into the classroom. Rewarding poor behavior for incremental change is not the education system we want in this country. Just because education is protected by FAPE, doesn’t mean that it should be treated like a free ride.It is the most important part of a child’s life, that is what should be put before them.

Going to school is not the same as having a job. Plus, I’m guessing that people who think paying children for doing things that are part of their development and maturation don’t have kids of their own. For anyone confused as to why these rewards are so inappropriate, read Alfie Kohn’s “Punished By Rewards.”

Hey Learning Matters, next time you might consider asking a public school parent. We have opinions too, and sometimes they are worth hearing from as much as from the so-called experts.

Science has proven this will not work. (One study funded by the Federal Reserve.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=u6XAPnuFjJc

I second Leonie’s comments, including her suggestions that a parent perspective would be helpful.

In addition, it’s perplexing how commentary from a K-12 teacher could be omitted from the discussion….

I have always been opposed to “bribing” students to do well in school. I beleive it is something they should want to do as opposed to being bouhgt to do. Then I came to terms with the concept that the type of student that Wants to do well is often encouraged to do so from the home environment and many children do not get that kind of motivation or have those kinds of values enstilled from the home. I have used “incentives” to motivate success and then I remove the incentives when it becomes a pattern….do well becuase it feels good to well well in school.

YOU ALL SUCK ITS CALLED “BRIBING”

ICECREAMMMMMMMM!!!!!

Paying students to go to school? Its okay only when they are kids and thier only job is to go to school. I’d say it would make them want to go to school and that is great.

However I am against doing it at the college level. College is a personal choice and since it is for people that are supposed to be working age (18+), college is considered something done ‘at leisure’ and needs to be paid for just like you would a airplane ticket or hotel room




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