Many teachers face the challenge of what to do about underperforming students, but a new study from the UK suggests that it might be possible to bribe youngsters into improving their behaviour and grades. The study, headed by Professor Simon Burgess at the University of Bristol, offered 10,600 pupils in lower income brackets (who also received free school meals) at 60 state schools in the UK £80 per half-term if they could improve their attendance, grades and behaviour. The study, funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/), a charity which aims to breach the attainment gap, found that while financial incentives had little impact on stronger students, underperforming youngsters managed to raise their grades by an average of 10% (http://www.efm.bris.ac.uk/economics/working_papers/pdffiles/dp16678.pdf).
Participating students were divided into three groups. The first group, as a control, received no rewards. The second group receive non-financial incentives (they were given tokens which they could exchange for rewards like concert tickets) and the third group was offered financial incentives. Of the £80 offered to each student, £30 was for completed homework, £30 for completed classwork, £10 for good behaviour and £10 for attendance. The results for the second group were almost as good as those of the students given financial rewards, leading the authors of the study to suggest that “non-financial rewards provide a feasible and cost-effective alternative to financial incentives”.
Burgess, a Professor of Economics, ran the study over an entire academic year and used GCSE grades as a measurement. Results were particularly noteworthy in math and science. He hopes that the study will provide guidance for schools and policy-makers designing economically effective incentives for underperforming students. However, Burgess’ results were surprising. A similar study conducted by Harvard economist Roland Freyer (http://www.nber.org/papers/w19113) in Oklahoma found that financial incentives had no real impact on grades, behaviour or attendance. A similar conclusion was drawn by Professor Stephen J. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (the team behind the Freakonomics phenomenon) in their 2010 film. Levitt was also part of a team consulting on one of Burgess’ past projects, which concluded that financial incentives had no impact on grade. This time, Burgess argues that the difference is the need among students to prepare for high-stakes tests: the GCSEs.
Although the study does not contain a statistically significant sample when drawing conclusions about the entire student population, it does offer suggestions for those hoping to devise targeted solutions to help a specific sub-population of students. While establishing a fiscal link between educational attainment and rewards was of little use for high-achieving students, a pragmatic solution is needed for those from low-income backgrounds. The study’s authors hope that its recommendations will help policy makers design effective strategies for helping individual students.
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