In November, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) raised eyebrows when it suggested that its schools may begin paying some students for good performance. All of the details weren’t spelled out, but the basic idea is that schools would give students from low-income families a certain amount of money for staying enrolled in school and additional money for earning good grades.
This is a complicated issue and I’m not sure if the TDSB proposal is, on the whole, a good idea. However, one good thing about the proposal is that it shows that some people are beginning to consider rarely asked but crucially important questions at the heart of our education system’s problems – why are so many students refusing to study what can be done to get them to work harder?
The current debate in BC about merit pay for teachers has put the issue of teachers’ incentives front-and-centre in the education reform debate. Proposals for school-choice reforms in which money would “follow the student” focus on improving the incentive structure for administrators by causing them to fear losing money if their school underperforms and kids leave. It’s obviously important to consider the incentives our policies create for teachers and administrators and it is likely that reforming those incentive structures can improve our schools. However, it is worth considering the possibility that changing the incentives for students themselves is a more direct and effective strategy for boosting student performance.
If we were dealing with adults this point would seem obvious. Engage in a thought experiment with me. Imagine that I, Ben Eisen, am taking a spelling test one month from now and it is extremely important to you, the reader, that I pass. Let’s say you get $2000 if I do. I don’t much care whether I pass because my spell checker has usually bailed me out in the past. How would you try to influence my performance? You could hire a tutor for me. You could even pay the tutor by performance- offering him $500 if I pass the test. It would probably be a lot smarter, however, to offer me the money directly by promising me a cut of the money as a reward for passing. My intelligence and effort level will be the primary determining factors in whether or not I succeed. My intelligence is fixed, so directly influencing my effort level is probably your best bet for success. The same may well hold true for high school students.
Of course designing a helpful system of paying students for performance would be far more complicated than this and may actually impossible – but the point of the example is to show that the best way to encourage performance is often to create punishments and rewards for the individual whose performance you are concerned with. Academic performance is, in large measure, a function of student effort. If you offered me two policy reforms, one of which was guaranteed to increase the effort level of all teachers by 25% in the next academic year and the other was guaranteed to increase the effort level of all students by 25% with teacher effort remaining the same, I would take the latter in a heartbeat. And yet, discussions about improving our education system seem to focus on everybody’s incentives except for the students themselves.
None of this is to neccessarily endorse paying students to study as the practical program design and implementation challenges may be impossible to effectively overcome. The point here is simply that getting kids to work harder would be among the most effective ways to boost academic performance. It is therefore a good idea for policymakers to at least consider what they can do to encourage student effort even while they are rightly working to ensure that teachers and administrators face appropriate incentive structures that reward effort and success.