In 2007, Harvard economist Roland Fryer, Jr. began an experiment in 261 schools in four cities—Chicago, Dallas, Washington, and New York. The study involved over 38,000 children, about half of whom were given money if they performed well in a variety of areas—including on tests, in their behavior (not fighting or adhering to uniform policies), and in reading.
These incentives were supposed to motivate low performing students to “up their game,” and become high performers. From the outset, many did not agree with the premise of Fryer’s study—that African-American and Latino children are not motivated to achieve, and therefore a monetary compensation would be enough to get them to engage in school. From psychologists (who felt that attaching money to learning might adversely affect student motivation to learn in the long-run) to teachers (who felt that children were being rewarded for behaviors they should do anyway), people were concerned.
This year, the study was concluded, finding that in most cases, money made no difference at all or only had a marginal impact on student academic performance. Dallas was the only place where a significant impact was found, and in these schools, second graders were incentivized to read, resulting in the equivalent of more instruction time at an early age—about three months more than their peers. So, was it the money, the emphasis on early literacy, or the extended learning time? Or all three combined?
The achievement gap between children of color and their white counterparts cannot be bridged through monetary compensation alone because it is not caused by just a lack of motivation, but rather, a continuum of deficiencies that lead to a lack of educational readiness among some children. The achievement gap has been explained by disparities in access to and participation in early childhood education. Children of color and poor children are less likely to attend preschool, an important intervention point that determines the likelihood of children being college or career ready.The achievement gap has also been explained as an outcome of low performance standards and draconian school discipline policies that disproportionately marginalize children of color from the classroom.
Children of color are more likely to attend schools with teachers that are not certified, and to learn in segregated environments where there are fewer resources to fully engage them as well-rounded students. Ultimately, the achievement gap is explained by many variables, and certainly poverty is one of them. However, the overall failure of incentives to produce significant academic impact confirms that academic achievement is not solely informed by how much cash is in one’s pocket.
Not surprisingly, Fryer’s work shows that reading more results in higher reading comprehension scores on standardized tests; and his results confirm that the achievement gap is bridged when children have access to quality early childhood education, are literate and engaged in a rigorous curriculum, and are able to exercise their multiple learning styles to increase understanding of subject matter. While student behavior—particularly among older kids who may have already bought into a popular culture that values money over intellectualism—may be improved by offering monetary incentives, their ability to compete academically was relatively untouched.
Maybe, the $6.3 million that was spent to pay kids for performance would have been better spent supporting extended learning time and tutorials, or investing in schools to bridge the resource inequities that lead to inferior learning environments for children of color. It might be easy to throw money at a problem, but this Harvard study teaches us that sometimes, the solution needs to be much more multifaceted and creative than that.