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# Effects of Incentives and Mentoring on High School Students

Module by: Sean Galvin. E-mail the author

Summary: A study on the effects of mentoring programs, incentive programs, and the possibility of a combination of the two in a high school setting.

The Effects of Mentoring and Financial Incentives

on Student Achievement in High Schools

Sean Galvin

Eastern Michigan University

November 2012

Introduction

Throughout the United States, educators are consistently looking for ways to increase student achievement. Whether it is an attempt to get failing students to graduate, to get students into college, or to get high achievers into Ivy League schools, educators are perpetually searching for new, innovative ways to make things happen.

When compared to those who earn high school diplomas, high school dropouts are much more likely to be unemployed, use drugs, or to end up in jail (James, 2004). The cost to society is tremendous. In 1993, the cost of incarcerating one person in the state of Michigan was $20,440 per year (Amboyer, 1993). That number is much higher today. Further, the United States of America spends more than$348 billion per year on education (Spencer et al, 2005). Despite these numbers, the use of financial incentives to motivate high school students has been extremely rare. In fact, more Americans support spanking in public schools than they do the idea of financial incentives (Fryer, 2010). Many educators, however, argue that incentives can be effective motivators in a high school setting, especially for at-risk students (Fryer 2010, Slavin 2009, Spencer et al 2005).

Aside from financial incentives, another potentially useful tool to motivate high school students is that of adult mentoring. Children who lack parental involvement in their education are much less likely to succeed than those with involved parents (Larocque, 2007). While schools have limited ability to get parents involved in the education of their children, it is possible for schools to provide at-risk students with at least one caring adult at school (Scott, 2005). These caring adults can make school a more welcoming place, especially for at-risk students.

Financial Incentives

Basic economic theory suggests that human beings will increase output if provided a significant monetary incentive (Pink, 2010). However, when it comes to complex tasks, these incentives have their limits.

In comprehensive study of incentive programs, Dr. Roland Fryer of Harvard University set up differently structured incentive programs in five large U.S. cities (Chicago, Dallas, Houston, New York, and Washington DC). Two of these programs incentivized what Fryer calls academic outputs (grades and test scores), while the other three programs focused on academic inputs (attendance, behavior, reading books).

The setup of the Chicago experiment was very simple. Students would be rewarded with $50 for each “A” on their report card,$35 for each “B”, $20 for each “C”, and no reward for a “D” or a failing grade. The average student in this experiment received$695.61 for the school year, but surprisingly, the incentives did very little to increase achievement, “treatment students passed approximately one-half a course more on average than control students.” (Allan & Fryer, 2011)

In New York, students were incentivized to perform on standardized tests. Students were offered a small stipend ($5 to$10) for completing the exam, and more money ($25 to$50) for a perfect score. The results showed no statistical improvement. In some instances, incentivized students actually scored lower than those in the control group. (Allan & Fryer, 2011)

Fryer suggests that programs based on outputs are ineffective. He found that virtually all students were excited about the idea of getting paid to perform academically, but they had little idea of how to actually raise their achievement. When asked how they would improve, students generally responded that they would try harder or read test questions more carefully. Rarely did these students answer that they would attend school more often, complete homework assignments, or ask for help with confusing topics. (Allan & Fryer, 2011)

While the output programs were ineffective, Fryer found success with programs based on inputs that students could more easily comprehend and control. These programs incentivized students to read books (Dallas), attend school and complete assignments (Washington), and master math objectives (Houston).

In Washington, students were given as much as $10 per day to attend class, behave, wear a uniform, and complete assignments. Students in the treatment group responded with increased attendance, decreased behavior issues, and improved academic performance. Fryer and his team also had success in Houston, where students were incentivized with two dollars for each mathematics quiz they passed. These students ended up mastering 125 percent more math objectives than their counterparts in the control group. The most successful of Fryer’s incentive programs took place in Dallas, where students were incentivized to read books. If participating students could pass a brief quiz to prove they read a given book (over 80,000 to choose from), they would be rewarded with two dollars. Fryer concluded that, “paying students to read books yields large and statistically significant increases in reading comprehension” (2011). In sum, Fryer found the output programs had a statistical impact of zero. There were marginal improvements, but nowhere near statistically significant. The input programs, however, showed much stronger results. Fryer explained his reasoning behind this, “Despite showing that students were excited about the incentive programs, the qualitative data also demonstrate that students had little idea about how to translate their enthusiasm into tangible steps designed to increase their achievement” (2011). Fryer concludes that students understand how to control inputs such as attendance, punctuality, and homework completion. If they can push themselves to accomplish the incentivized inputs, the outputs (grades and test scores) will follow (2011). It is important to note that all five of Fryer’s major experiments involved underachieving districts, four of which had over 90% of students receiving a free or reduced lunch (Washington DC had more than 70% meet this criterion). Generally speaking, the majority of the students involved in these experiments were low achievers. Research suggests that incentives may be more effective when dealing with high-achieving students from low socioeconomic districts (Spencer et. al, 2005). In a study of an existing program set up to incentivize high achieving high school students (grades 9-12), researchers found that, not only did incentives persuade students to achieve more, but it also helped them to overcome obstacles in their lives. “For students who live in poor, under resourced neighborhoods, the impact of monetary rewards may provide not only financial but also psychological relief…monetary rewards may be especially beneficial to these youth because they may alleviate the stress associated with economic challenges.” (Spencer et. al, 2005) Champions of Wayne The Champions of Wayne program at Wayne Memorial High School in Wayne, Michigan is an incentive program that contradicts Fryer’s findings. Champions incentivizes students to increase their grade point averages, generally setting a GPA goal that is a 15% increase from their career GPA. For example, a student with a career GPA of a 3.0 would be given a goal of a 3.5 for the semester. Those who are successful are invited to a formal banquet, where they are presented with a check for$200. Because Champions places the incentive on grades, it is an output based program, which Fryer would predict to be ineffective.

However, Champions has proven to be successful. During the 2011-2012 school year, Wayne Memorial students not enrolled in Champions (control group) saw their average GPAs decrease by 0.29, while students enrolled in Champions for the year (treatment group) saw their average GPAs go up by 0.12. This means a GPA difference of 0.43 between those enrolled in Champions and those not enrolled. Further, students enrolled in Champions as 11th graders saw greater increases from their PLAN test (taken as 10th graders) to their ACT (taken in the spring of their 11th grade year) than their non-Champions counterparts.

There are a few possible explanations as to why Champions, which is most similar to Fryer’s Chicago experiment, is effective as an output program. First, Champions has been a part of Wayne Memorial for four school years, while Fryer’s experiments only operated for one year. Second, and perhaps most influential, Champions provides each enrolled student with an adult mentor to coach them throughout each semester.

Mentoring

Existing research suggests that, even without incentives, mentoring programs can be effective in increasing student achievement and reducing dropout rates (Scott 2005, Herrera et al 2011, Weaver 2007). In a study on high school dropouts in Alabama, most students reported that the reason they dropped out was a lack of emotional connection to the school (Dunn, Chambers, & Rabren, 2004). Many at-risk students see school as a place where they are used to failing, and as a consistent reminder of their lack of academic success (Lee & Burkham, 2003). Providing a caring mentor for this type of student is one way to change this view of school.

Conclusions

Despite his large, comprehensive studies on incentive programs, Fryer admits that his work has “barely scratched the surface” in terms of what is possible with incentive programs in schools. There are millions of different ways such programs can be structured (Allen & Fryer, 2011).

Existing research on mentoring is plentiful, and there is a growing body of research on incentive programs. It is difficult, however, to find any research on programs that combine mentoring and incentives. In this regard, the Champions of Wayne program is unique.

A thorough quantitative and qualitative study on Champions of Wayne would provide valuable knowledge in this area.

References

Allan, B.M. and Fryer, R.G. 2011. The power and pitfalls of education incentives. The Hamilton Project (Sept. 2011)

Amboyer, D.J. (1993). Michigan county requires inmates to defray cost of incarceration. Corrections Today. 55(6) p. 88

Dunn, C., Chambers, D., & Rabren, K. (2004). Variables affecting students’ decisions to drop out of school. Remedial and Special Education. 25(5), 314-323.

Fryer, R.G. (2010). Financial incentives and student achievement: evidence from randomized trials. The Quarterly Journal of Economics (2011) 1755-1798

Herrera, C. Grossman, J.B., Kauh, T.J., and McMaken, J. (2011). Mentoring in schools: an impact study of big brothers big sisters school-based mentoring. Child Development. Jan/Feb 2011, 82(1), 346-361.

James, D.J. (2004). Bureau of Justice statistics special report: Profile of jail inmates, 2002. 1-12

Larocque, M. (2007). Closing the achievement gap: The experience of a middle school. The Clearing House, 80(4), 157-161.

Lee, V.E. & Burkam, D.T. (2003). Dropping out of high school: The role of school organization and structure. American Educational Research Journal, 40(2), 353-393.

Scott, K.S. (2005). Reduce your dropouts: It’s not as hard as you think. Principal Leadership, 6(3), 38-42.

Slavin, R.E. 2009. Can financial incentives enhance educational outcomes? Evidence from international experiments. Educational Research Review. 5(1). 68-80

Spencer, M.B., Noll, E., Cassidy, E. 2005. Monetary incentives in support of academic achievement: Results of a randomized field trial involving high-achieving, low-resource, ethnically diverse urban adolescents. Evaluation Review. 29(3). 199-222.

Weaver, S.M. (2007). Cultivating connections with parents. The Clearing House 81(1), 1-7

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