Saturday, June 09, 2007

Some Comments on Roland Fryer's work on "Incentive Pay" for Students

I greatly admire how Professor Fryer is blending serious academic research with social activism. Many field experiments look "low stakes" to me. His field experiment (to offer urban kids $ bonuses for scoring high on school exams) strikes me as "high stakes" and potentially important.

Permit me to pose a few questions:

1. Will the $ bonus make studying "cool"? I haven't spoken to Roland about his work but I'm guessing that following Gary Becker's work on bandwaggon effects he views student labor supply (i.e hours studying) as an increasing function of; A. the immediate return to studying , B. the long run human capital return to studying, C. Whether your peer group is engaging in this activity. Roland must be hoping that his new incentive will boost up A and C here. Such a "social multiplier" effect ---- if it is real, could have a huge effect on raising student achievement in inner-city public schools.

2. Is this case of heterogeneous treatment effects? Jim Heckman's recent work has highlighted the importance of recognizing that the same treatment (offering a cash bonus in this case) can affect different people differently. Who is the marginal student in Roland's experiment? Could his incentive increase minority test score inequality as the motivated students "take the bait" while the slackers reject it?

3. How will the teachers unions respond to the increased effort by their students? A complements model would say that they would work harder perhaps because they would be less burned out and feel refreshed to have hard working kids in the room. A moral hazard model might posit that they would shirk more and try less hard if the kids are studying hard. I'm not sure I believe this latter story.

4. If Fryer's intervention succeeds in the short run, does this mean that the "treated" students will gain more human capital in the long run? By studying for the test will "learning beget learning"? Will "skill beget skill"? Could this "commodification" of education backfire in the long run?

5. Fryer will face a tricky issue of evaluating his own programs. Private fat cat donors are more likely to give him more $ for future bonuses for students if his programs are succeeding in raising test scores. Ideally, a 3rd party with no links to him would conduct the evaluation to see if his past experiments have been effective.

June 9, 2007
A Plan to Pay for Top Scores on Some Tests Gains Ground

Roland G. Fryer, a 30-year-old Harvard economist known for his study of racial inequality in schools, is back in New York to again promote a big idea: Pay students cash for high scores on standardized tests and their performance might improve. And he has captured the attention of Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Across the country, educators have been experimenting with cash incentives. A program in Chelsea, Mass., gave children $25 for perfect attendance. Some Dallas schools pay children $2 for each book they read.

But the idea is controversial. Many educators maintain, among other objections, that children have to learn for the love of it, not for cash.

Until now, Professor Fryer’s idea of cash for performance has had no serious takers. Three years ago, he tried to implement a pilot program in New York City charter schools that would have given students cash in exchange for good test scores.

“They kicked us out,” Professor Fryer said of the schools that first considered the program. And some Department of Education officials were not enthusiastic, either, he said. “They laughed in my face.”

But Mr. Bloomberg has recently shown interest in using payments, raised from the private sector, as a way to change behavior and reduce poverty.

In September, he proposed giving cash to poor adults to encourage them to do everything from keeping their children in school to seeking preventive medical care. And so, he said yesterday at a news conference, he was receptive to Professor Fryer’s idea. “If we aren’t looking at everything,” he said, “shame on us.”

This week, Professor Fryer met with a group of school principals who are considering participating in his incentives program. Information about the program was first reported yesterday in The Daily News.

Education Department officials said that putting the program into effect has a long way to go. “We are still at a preliminary stage,” Debra Wexler, a department spokeswoman, said yesterday. “Neither the mayor nor the chancellor have approved any program details.”

Professor Fryer said that under his program, fourth graders and seventh graders who take the new round of mandatory standardized tests that the city is introducing in the fall would be rewarded with at least $5. They would get more money for high scores, with a cap of $25 for fourth graders and $50 for seventh graders. In addition, each participating school would receive $5,000.

Money for the payments will come from private backers, Professor Fryer said, because there would be no public money available for them.

The prospect of cash introduced into the classroom has made some local educators uneasy.

“It makes me really nervous,” said Maggie Siena, the principal of Public School 150 in TriBeCa. “I suspect paying kids for achievement in any way tends not to work.”

Ernest Logan, the president of the principals’ union, also expressed concerns. “We are troubled by additional pressure being placed on children to achieve perfection,” he said. “What really matters in education is continued student progress, not perfect test scores.”

Professor Fryer and other educational scholars have argued that some children, especially those from impoverished backgrounds, lack the foresight and role models to be self-motivated.

“The fundamental problem with education and motivating kids to learn what they need to learn is that the payoffs are so distant,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning research organization. “So it’s very hard to motivate students to do well. Good students get that motivation from somewhere — from peers, their parents, how they’re raised — but the kids who are unmotivated have a very hard time understanding that what they do today pays off decades from now.”

Eric Nadelstern, the chief executive of the school system’s empowerment initiative — which gives principals more autonomy to run their schools — lauded Professor Fryer in a recent e-mail message to principals. “He has my enthusiastic support,” Mr. Nadelstern said. “I encourage you to give the program serious consideration.”

Professor Fryer, who is black, has explored racial issues in education extensively. He has written studies on the gap in test scores between black children and white children, the economic effect of “acting white,” how the mental ability of young children differs by race, and the causes and consequences of attending historically black colleges and universities.

Professor Fryer, on his Web site,, calls the program “Incentivising: An Experiment in NYC Public Schools.”

In a near-empty cafeteria at Frank Sinatra High School of the Arts in Queens on Wednesday, Professor Fryer promoted the plan to a dozen principals with an informal speech about poverty, the test score gap, his professional experience and personal history and his grandmother’s suggestions for the plan.

He persuaded at least one principal to change her mind about the program. “Prior to going into the meeting, I wasn’t in favor of it,” said Crystal Simmons, the principal of the Academy for Social Action in Harlem. “But now I think it could work if it is established in the right way. There should be some financial-literacy element, for instance.”

After the meeting, Professor Fryer said in an e-mail message to the principals that more than half the available spots in the proposed incentive program had been filled.

Mr. Loveless of Brookings said that though cash-incentive programs tend to make people uneasy, he believed the proposal was worth considering. “I would take it seriously,” he said. “I don’t think we should let our queasiness over directly awarding kids with cash prevent us from experimenting. We need to find out if this works or not.”