At the Burroughs Education Center in Washington DC, students get paid on the basis of metrics like attendance, behavior, tests and class work. The school is part of a larger national experiment to learn whether incentivizing students with money leads to improved academic performance.
To find out, a Harvard economist named Roland Fryer Jr. did something education researchers almost never do: he ran a randomized experiment in hundreds of classrooms in multiple cities. He used mostly private money to pay 18,000 kids a total of $6.3 million and brought in a team of researchers to help him analyze the effects. He got death threats, but he carried on. The results, which he shared exclusively with TIME, represent the largest study of financial incentives in the classroom — and one of the more rigorous studies ever on anything in education policy.
The experiment ran in four cities: Chicago, Dallas, Washington and New York. Each city had its own unique model of incentives, to see which would work best. Some kids were paid for good test scores, others for not fighting with one another. The results are fascinating and surprising. They remind us that kids, like grownups, are not puppets. They don't always respond the way we expect.
In the city where Fryer expected the most success, the experiment had no effect at all — "as zero as zero gets," as he puts it. In two other cities, the results were promising but in totally different ways. In the last city, something remarkable happened. Kids who got paid all year under a very elegant scheme performed significantly better on their standardized reading tests at the end of the year. Statistically speaking, it was as if those kids had spent three extra months in school, compared with their peers who did not get paid.
"These are substantial effects, as large as many other interventions that people have thought to be successful," says Brian Jacob, a University of Michigan public-policy and economics professor who has studied incentives and who reviewed Fryer's study at TIME's request. If incentives are designed wisely, it appears, payments can indeed boost kids' performance as much as or more than many other reforms you've heard about before — and for a fraction of the cost.
The TIME cover piece by Amanda Ripley says that the results contain one remarkable finding: the kids who were helped the most by the experiment were the ones who are normally among the hardest to reach."
Fryer tells Ripley: "The typical reform helps girls more than it helps boys. [This] is the opposite. In D.C., all the results are being driven by the boys. That's fascinating."
Ripley adds: "Kids with a history of serious behavioral problems saw the biggest gains in test scores overall. Their reading scores shot up 0.4 standard deviations, which is roughly the equivalent of five additional months of schooling."
Students can earn as much as $100 every two weeks. Funds for such programs typically come from taxpayers, foundation grants or some mix of private and public money.