Student Incentives: Do They Belong in Your School?

Vol. 15 No. 4

academicleadership eletter Vol16 No4 incentive

If you eat dinner, you get dessert. If you do your chores, you get an allowance. If you have perfect attendance for a full school year or get a certain grade on a test, you get a gift card?

Student incentives like the last example are becoming more commonplace in schools around the world. From small incentives (like stickers or school supplies) to bigger incentives (such as pizza parties or free time) and even financial rewards, any incentive program within your school must make sense for your culture and your mission.

Only your Leadership Team can decide if incentives are right for your mission, your school, and your students. Research has highlighted the impact of different incentive programs. Read on if you already have or are considering implementing such a program in your school.

Roland Fryer, an economist at Harvard University, conducted a series of education-focused experiments in 2011. His team paid more than $6 million to over 18,000 low-income students in Chicago, Dallas, New York City, and the District of Columbia to try to improve their test scores.

His findings revealed that students were much more likely to respond to incentives if they felt they could control the results. Programs that rewarded behaviors such as studying for a certain amount of time each day, turning in additional study guides, or completing practice tests were more likely to see participation than rewarding certain tests grades. Researchers concluded that students responded more to incentives they could control, rather than outputs (such as test scores).

Other research found that providing incentives for higher test scores could work—as long as the reward was given immediately. Sally Sadoff conducted research as a Griffin Postdoctoral Scholar at UChicago from 2010–11. Her team studied 7,000 Chicago-based students and found that lower school students responded to nonfinancial rewards, such as trophies, while upper school students were more motivated by financial incentives to perform well on tests. However, “all motivating power of the incentives vanishes when rewards are handed out with a delay,” according to the study.

Some analysts and researchers caution against incentive programs entirely, stating that, once the outside reward is removed, students are no longer motivated. Alfie Kohn published his book, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes, in 1993. In it, he states that “if we’re using gimmicks like rewards to try to improve achievement without regard to how they affect kids’ desire to learn, we kill the goose that laid the golden egg.” He offers that incentives can diminish the joy students feel when learning and replaces that joy with an outside motivation that can easily dissapear.

As you consider your school culture and your mission, decide how incentives fit in, if at all. Then work with your team to create a schoolwide policy that can be followed by all administrators, faculty, and staff. Include whether you want to use incentives inside the classroom, as well as for campus management and fundraising initiatives. This will ensure every member of the school is on the same page and can act appropriately.

Additional ISM Resources:
The Source for Advancement Vol. 12 No. 7 How Donor Incentive Programs Backfire

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P
Vol. 42 No. 6 Are Referral Incentives the Right Approach to Recruit Families?

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