Many schools in major urban districts like New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Dallas are employing incentive programs that reward students—often with money—for good performance. These programs have long-garnered skepticism from some psychologists who say they are ineffectual in the long run. But, some business professionals and economists support the programs, citing a need to try anything and everything to improve education. A renewed focus on education reform has prompted increased research on whether or not the programs work, according to the New York Times.
Economists studied several cash programs to compare the academic performance of students who are paid versus those who are not. The results are mixed. Kirabo Jackson, an assistant professor of economics at Cornell who studied Dallas’ A.P. test reward program, found that students who earned rewards scored higher on the SAT and enrolled in college at a higher rate than students who were not rewarded. A separate study of New York’s program A.P. reward program showed that “test scores were flat but that more students were taking the tests.”
Psychologists have explored incentivizing learning since the 1970s. One of the first studies, published in 1971 by University of Rochester psychologist Edward L. Deci, found that, “once the incentives stopped coming, students showed less interest in the task at hand than those who received no reward.”
Newer psychological studies are examining how to differentiate types of incentives and how children perceive them. Some studies report that students resist the awards and incentives because they, “can sense that someone is trying to control their behavior.”
“One of the central questions is to consider how children think about this,” said Mark R. Lepper, a Stanford psychologist. “Are they saying, ‘Oh, I see, they are just bribing me’?”