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The “Incentivising” Experiment in New York City Schools

by Ronald E. Chennault - November 26, 2007

The New York City public school system introduced a new plan this fall to offer monetary incentives to students for performance on standardized tests. This experiment will involve at least 40 schools and at least 9,000 students. This commentary discusses the problems with such an incentive program and argues for other means for addressing “achievement gaps” that are more supported by evidence.

Starting in the fall of this year, the New York City Department of Education introduced a new plan to pay students in some of its public schools for their performance on standardized tests (Bosman, 2007). This experiment, which has been labeled incentivising, is designed to determine the degree to which students performance on the tests will improve if they are paid according to how well they score.

The pilot phase of the incentive program is being conducted under the leadership of Roland Fryer, currently an economics professor at Harvard University, who has been appointed by New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein to be his chief equality officer. In this role, Fryers primary charge is to advise Klein on how to improve the academic performance of Black and Latino students. Fryer has experimented in the New York schools before now, when Klein invited him to try out his idea in 2004, but only in a small number of schools. This fall, however, at least 40 (and reportedly as many as 61) schools are participating, with a total of more than 9,000 students. After two years, the program will be evaluated and considered for expansion. The funding for the program is being raised from the private sector, and is part of Mayor Michael Bloombergs larger initiative to give cash payments to poorer adults as a means of changing their behaviors and reducing poverty.  

The incentive plan for fourth- and seventh-graders will vary payments to those students depending on performance. Fourth-grade students will receive anywhere from $5 for just taking each of ten standardized tests administered throughout the school year to $25 for each perfect score. The seventh-grade students will receive from $10 to $50 per test. Additionally, each participating school will receive $5,000.

This kind of incentive program is not unheard of, even in the educational arena. For example, many students have participated in programs that reward them with prizes and even money for books they read during the summer vacation from school. There are also systems that reward the schools that have the best attendance on the first day of school. The apparent goal behind such incentives is to motivate students to perform better academicallyor at least to increase their attachment to and engagement in school with the hope that better academic performance will follow. This goal is worthwhile, for sure, but is New Yorks incentivising plan a responsible way for a public school system to accomplish it?

The achievement gaps (most often indicated by standardized test scores differences) between White students and Black and Latino students and between students of higher socioeconomic status and those of lower SES have generated a great deal of debate, raised serious concerns, and been the subject of lots of research over the past few decades. Attempts to pin down the key factor (or two or three factors) behind the gaps have yet to yield a satisfactory, agreed-upon answer. In fact, the search for such a holy grail solution is probably wrong-headed, given the complexity of studying these gaps and given even the lack of agreement on what the ultimate resolution should look like.  See Lee (2002) for a helpful discussion of this complexity. However, because significant disparities do exist between the opportunities and outcomes of White students and students of higher socioeconomic status and non-White students and those of lower SES, the gaps require our most engaged and creative thinking and effort in order to address them. So the fact that the New York City Department of Education is focused on the disparities is appropriate and deserves recognition.

But what about the potential for harm? Although the claim that tangible rewards can substantially undermine intrinsic motivation still generates controversy, there is a substantial body of evidence that supports this proposition. Many meta-analytic reviews of the literature, most recently by Deci, Koestner, and Ryan (1999), have demonstrated the undermining effect of these rewards. The results of these analyses make it clear that educators should exercise caution regarding how and when they use reward-based incentive programs (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 2001). In fact, programs that reward students as a direct function of performancethe very type of program created for the New York City schoolsseem to run the greatest risk of undermining motivation (Deci et al., 2001).

There is actually a small body of work that has examined the effect of tangible rewards in the form of monetary incentives. ONeil, Abedi, Miyoshi, and Mastergeorge (2005) administered math items from TIMSS to 12th-grade students in the United States and offered the students $10 for each item answered correctly. They found that the incentive increased effort, but did not increase performance; a similar study using a sample of German students reported similar findings. It is important to note that this line of research is not very extensive, so there may be much more to learn from it. Also, the assessment used in this research is a test with low stakes, so the applicability of the results to the case of the New York City incentive programsome or all of whose tests are high-stakes onesis thus limited. However, this particular work along with the much larger body of work concerning tangible rewards in general offers us enough evidence to warrant a more circumspect approach than the one taken by the New York Department of Education.       

Given the relevant evidence that supports exercising caution when implementing incentive programs, the fact that the New York program is Fryers first big idea as chief equality officer is all the more disturbing. The challenges faced by large, urban school districts require school leaders to be courageous and sometimes creative in order to contend with them. There are other solutions, however, that we already know to be effective in dealing with these challenges; could the equality officer not have begun with these? Among these solutions are: establishing smaller class sizes in the early grades, which the literature demonstrates as being particularly beneficial for minority students (especially in reading) (Finn, Gerber, & Boyd-Zaharias, 2005; Nye, Hedges, & Konstantopoulos, 2004); avoiding placing the least prepared educators in the most challenging schools (Darling-Hammond & Sykes, 2003); and creating and employing assessment systems that include local assessments (following the example already set by the New York Performance Standards Consortium in 28 schools across the state), which students are likely to find more meaningful and thus take more seriously. The New York City school leaders might have even made use of the extensive program of research conducted by Dweck and her associates (1999) by addressing students theories about intelligenceeither that intelligence is a fixed trait or that it can be cultivated through learningsince the theory one holds affects achievement and coping ability. When there are evidence-based practices, to refer to that ubiquitous NCLB-era buzzword, already at our disposal, why experiment with students using methods of questionable effectiveness?

All of the leaders involved with New Yorks incentive program undoubtedly want it to work. But what will the indicators of success be? Higher one-time test scores? Higher scores through graduation? Or just fewer students falling asleep during test administrations? And is this just the first of many such programs to come? The answer appears to be yes, given Fryers declaration to his economics students that his next plan will involve giving cell phones to students and rewarding them with free minutes. He has said that he sees his work as a personal mission between [him] and the 10-year-olds in Harlem (Grynbaum & Medina, 2007). We can only hope that those young students make it as far as he doeswithout losing their intrinsic motivation along the way.                    


Bosman, J.  (2007, June 9).  A plan to pay for top scores on some tests gains ground.  New York Times, p. B1.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Sykes, G.  (2003).  Wanted: A national teacher supply policy for education: The right way to meet the highly qualified teacher challenge?  Education Policy Analysis Archives, 11(33).  Retrieved October 18, 2007, from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v11n33/    

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M.  (1999).  A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation.  Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-668.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M.  (2001).  Extrinsic rewards and Intrinsic motivation in education: Reconsidered once again.  Review of Educational Research, 71, 1-27.

Dweck, C. S.  (1999).  Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development.  Philadelphia: Psychology Press/Taylor and Francis.

Finn, J. D., Gerber, S. B., & Boyd-Zaharias, J.  (2005).  Small classes in the early grades, academic achievement, and graduating from high school.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 214-223.

Grynbaum, J. M., & Medina, J.  (2007, November 1).  Plan to use cellphones as a reward for good schoolwork begins to emerge.  New York Times, p. B2.

Lee, J.  (2002).  Racial and ethnic achievement gap trends: Reversing the progress toward equity?  Educational Researcher, 31, 3-12.

New York Performance Standards Consortium. (n.d.).  Performance assessment: Components. Retrieved August 2, 2007, from http://performanceassessment.org.

Nye, B., Hedges, L. V., & Konstantopoulos, S.  (2004).  Do minorities experience larger lasting benefits from small classes?  The Journal of Educational Research, 98, 94-100.  

ONeil, H. F., Abedi, J., Miyoshi, J., Mastergeorge, A.  (2005). Monetary incentives for low-stakes tests.  Educational Assessment, 10, 185-208.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 26, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14792, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 11:58:17 AM

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About the Author
  • Ronald Chennault
    DePaul University
    E-mail Author
    RONALD E. CHENNAULT is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Research. His scholarly interests include race, cultural pluralism, educational theory and policy, cultural studies, and media analysis. He is the author of Hollywood Films about Schools: Where Race, Politics, and Education Intersect (2006).
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