September 28, 2012
City teenagers who knew they would get cash bonuses if they did better in school spent less time socializing and more time studying, according to a new study.
But the pattern held true only for teens who were already “academically inclined,” according to the researchers who conducted the analysis, the latest in a series of studies about a city incentives experiment that was conducted from 2007 to 2010.
The program, called Opportunity NYC, offered families payments for different behaviors related to education, health care, and work. For example, families got $200 for each member who had annual physical exam, and adults received $150 a month for maintaining a full-time job.
The program ended in 2010 after generating a rich set of data that researchers are continuing to mine. A first look at the program’s results last year found little to no impact of cash incentives on children’s education.
But the latest analysis, completed by the research firm MDRC, looked only at families with teenagers and focused on behaviors that the incentives weren’t actually designed to influence. It finds that teens who were generally on track in school who had been promised cash for improved academic performance spent more time on homework and other academically oriented activities, forgoing social time in the process.
Teens who had already fallen behind in school did not change their behavior because of the incentives, the researchers found. Those teens continued dividing their time in the same way among school activities, work, and watching TV, and socializing.
“More attention needs to be paid to redesigning incentives that would be effective for nonproficient teenagers,” the researchers conclude.
The researchers, all professors at New York University, suggest that one takeaway from their study is that future experiments into incentives might focus on targeting “pathways of influence” rather than outcomes alone.
“For example, rather than incentivizing academic achievement as measured by standardized tests, rewards could offer students incentives for grade point averages or homework,” they write. “Or they could encourage students to attend academic tutoring programs or to join academic clubs, which have been shown to improve academic achievement and might change the way students approach schooling more effectively.”
It’s not a wholly original suggestion. Roland Fryer, a sociologist who designed two different incentive programs that the city Department of Education abandoned because they were not boosting test scores, said last year that he had concluded that incentives are most effective when they are meant to spur behavior, not reward scores. The new Opportunity NYC analysis lends one data point to Fryer’s camp.
The finding makes an interesting juxtaposition with a study from the 1960′s that examined the effective of low-stakes incentives — M&M’s — on children’s performance on IQ tests. In that study, discussed in Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed,” when students who had previously taken an IQ test were offered one piece of candy for every correct answer on a subsequent test, their scores increased, on average, by 12 points. The effect was strongest for the lowest-performing students, the researchers found at the time.
That test looked at performance, not behaviors, and there was no lag between completing the desired action and receiving a reward.