Cheating is not a big deal

The Atlanta cheating indictments — from the former superintendent down to principals and teachers — have brought calls to eliminate test-based accountability measures. If there’s no incentive to cheat, there’ll be no cheating, the argument goes.  Minimizing cheating shouldn’t be the top priority, argues Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine.

Incentivizing any field increases the impetus to cheat.

. . . If Major League Baseball instituted tenure, and maybe used tee-ball rules where you can’t keep score and everybody gets a chance to hit, it could stamp out steroid use.

Students have been cheating on tests forever — massive, systematic cheating, you could say. Why? Because they have an incentive to do well. Give teachers and administrators an incentive for their students to do well, and more of them will cheat.

Standardized test scores “account for no more than half of the criteria” for evaluating teachers in any state, Chait writes. Classroom evaluations and other factors count for the rest.

 States use complex models to measure how much a class increased its performance from the beginning to the end of the school year, accounting for socioeconomic conditions and other factors.

“There’s a useful debate to be had over how to design the criteria for measuring effective teachers,” he writes, but minimizing cheating is not the top priority. “The top priority should be teaching students better.”

The Atlanta scandal wasn’t about teachers cheating to look better. It was about administrators pressuring teachers to make low-performing schools look better. That’s true in Philadelphia’s cheating scandal too.

Better bribing

Giving students $20 or a trophy before a test — with the threat of taking it away if they do poorly — raises scores more than promising a future reward, concludes a study at low-performing Chicago schools by Steven Levitt (the Freakonomics guy) and others.  Derek Thompson writes in the Atlantic:

First, they found that money works, and the amount of money really matters. Students were reportedly willing to exert significantly more energy at $80-an-hour, but not at $40-an-hour.

. . . Second, they learned that the rewards were most powerful when they were framed as losses rather than gains  (i.e.: “Here is $20. If you fail, I’m taking it away.”) The technical term for this is loss aversion and it’s endemic. We’re more protective of money we have — or think we have — than we are aggressive about seeking money we don’t have. Third, they learned that “non-financial incentives,” like trophies, worked best with young people. Fourth, they learned that rewards provided with a delay — “we’ll get you that check in a month!” — did very little to improve performance.

Unfortunately, education’s rewards usually aren’t immediate. Telling students to study now so they’ll be ready for college or earn more in 10 years may not be effective.

A business built on failure

After 37 years with NPR and PBS, John Merrow claims he’s leaving the non-profit world to go into the remedial education business.

I know it’s going to be a gold mine. All I need are failing kids, and I don’t see any signs that the supply is drying up.

He’s not serious, but many readers missed the satire. I think it’s because his fictional business makes a lot of sense. He writes:

I have some definite advantages over schools: (1) the technology to diagnose deficiencies and create specific programs that address those shortcomings and measure accomplishment; (2) a population of (finally) motivated young people who realize they need certain skills if they want to find decent jobs; and (3) powerful financial incentives that encourage me to teach them quickly.

He proposes self-paced modules, instead of semesters. “Learn it, prove you’ve learned it, and you’re done.”

Students will be motivated to learn so they can move on to the world of work. He’ll be motivated to help them do that.

Unlike today’s educators, I will get paid only when the students succeed. Should I fail, I get hurt where it matters: in the pocketbook. In most education systems, failure is blamed on the students. And then their failure is usually ‘punished’ by promotion to the next grade.

He won’t use the word “remediation,” which is a downer. Instead, he’ll “certify” his students’ skill levels.

If Merrow could teach useful skills to failing students — and be paid only for success  — he’d deserve to earn a profit. Of course, it may be harder than he thinks. And, if it’s not, he’d have lots of competition.

The fact that businesses make money supplying books, tests, technology, desks or pencils — or tutoring,  training and consulting — to schools  is not a problem, if those supplies and services are worth the cost.


Ace the test, win an iPhone

“Novato High School sparked a minor controversy earlier this year by giving out iPads and iPhones in exchange for higher standardized test scores,” reports the Novato Patch in northern California. Low-performing students who raised their scores significantly were eligible for the raffle. High achievers were not.

Across the country, schools are trying to motivate students with goodies, cash and parties.

* A high school near Boston offering seniors a $1,200 laptop for good attendance and getting into college or the military.

* The Baltimore school system paying $110 to each high school student who improved their scores on the state graduation exams.

* Suburban Atlanta schools paying students $8 an hour for a 15-week “Learn & Earn” after-school study program.

* Dozens of Los Angeles high schools offering a boost in classroom grades for students who scored high on California standardized tests.

At San Jose Middle School, a feeder to Novato High, students with good attendance and behavior records can skip classes once a month to attend a carnival-like event called College Friday.  September’s party featured a teacher dunk tank, jumpy houses, slides and snow cones.

At San Marin High School, Principal Adam Littlefield asks teachers to write personal notes of encouragement to students who are struggling.  He’s also awarded certificates held ceremonies to honor hard workers.  “I wouldn’t say that kids are gonna get an iPod or a car based on what they do,” he said.

Should we provide extrinsic rewards — such as money — to school students? Learning Matters is hosting a debate on the issue.

Cash incentives boost AP pass rate

More students take Advanced Placement classes and pass the exam when teachers and students are offered cash incentives, reports the New York Times.

At South High Community School, a mostly low-income school in Worcester, Massachusetts, eight times as many students take Joe Nystrom’s AP Statistics classes. The pass rate has climbed from 50 percent to 70 percent.

South High students said Mr. Nystrom and his colleagues had transformed the culture of a tough urban school, making it cool for boys with low-slung jeans who idolize rappers like Lil Wayne to take the hardest classes.

They were helped by the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit network that provided laboratory equipment and special training for teachers and organized afternoon tutoring and Saturday sessions. It also paid $100 each to students who scored a 3 or above on the A.P. exam — and to their teachers, who can also earn additional rewards. Because 43 of his students passed the exam this year, far above his target, Mr. Nystrom will add a $7,300 check to his $72,000 salary.

Kristopher Santana, son of a customer service rep, earned a perfect 5 on the AP Statistics exam after atttending 18 hours of Saturday classes organized by the initiative, and Nystrom’s twice-weekly, after-school tutoring sessions. The $100 was “a great extra,” he says.

This year, 308 schools in six states are participating in the program.

 Brian Leonard, who teaches AP calculus and statistics at Lake Hamilton High School in Arkansas, earned a$12,500 bonus for 65 students who passed exams. Three years ago, the high school had only nine AP math students, all the children of educated professionals.  Now students from a range of backgrounds are taking AP math — and passing the exam.

Freakonomics: Paying for grades

Freakonomics asks: Should we pay students to get better grades?

The Freakonomics movie premieres on Oct. 1. It’s available for iTunes download here.

Houston pays kids, parents for math scores

Houston will  pay fifth graders and their parents at 25 schools to see if incentives, worh up to $1,020 per family, can boost low math scores. The Dallas-based Liemandt Foundation is providing $1.5 million for the experiment.

The pilot program — thought to be the first that offers joint incentives for parents and students — will allow fifth-graders to earn up to $440 for passing short math tests that show they have mastered key concepts, according to the draft proposal. Parents will get slightly less money for their children doing the work, and they can earn an extra $180 for attending nine conferences with teachers to review the youngsters’ progress.

Teachers can earn up to $40 per student for holding the parent conferences. The district already rewards teachers and school staff for boosting students’ scores on standardized tests.

In HISD, the students and their parents will get $2 for each math objective the child masters. Students will get practice math assignments on a total of 200 concepts and then will take a five-question test. They will get the money for correctly answering at least four questions on each, according to the draft proposal.

Parents will get their money in the form of debit-like cards. The district plans to encourage the students to get their money directly deposited into a savings account that HISD will help set up. Workshops on savings and financial management are included in the project.

Previous pay-for-performance experiments have shown mixed results.

College aid fails without incentives

Seeing college as an entitlement, many students slack off in high school, take remedial courses in college and never finish a degree, writes Jackson Toby, an emeritus Rutgers sociology professor, on Minding the Campus.

. . .  most of the responsibility for the relatively low rate of college graduation compared with enrollment is a result of misleading students and their parents into thinking that merely attending college will lead to well-paid and interesting jobs without pointing out that mere attendance is not enough. Students need to learn something at college.

Federal grants and loans are handed out with no regard for academic performance, encouraging entitlement thinking, he writes. To encourage students to work hard in primary and secondary school and college, student loans should be available only to low-income students with good academic performance.

However, Pell Grants should not be limited to good students, Toby argues.

(Grants) do not burden students with debts that they may not be able to repay and they do not burden the economy with complex financial instruments that can produce a credit crisis. Moreover, student grants that ignore academic merit are appealing as an expression of society’s interest in making higher education available even to students who have not done well in high school.

He suggests Pell Grants to poorly prepared students come with a warning that their college success is uncertain and an offer of remedial help in college. Toby envisions federally funded remedial classes for Pell Grant recipients who seek help. Those who reject help would be ineligible for student loans, which most low-income students need to complete a degree.

Toby thinks this would inspire students to work harder in school. I think it might turn B- students into B students, but I’m not sure the message would get through to C and D students. Students with poorly educated parents often have no sense of how well they need to read, write or calculate in order to pass college classes. If they’re passed along in allegedly college-prep classes in high school, they think they’re good to go to college. (Some think a D average in the easiest possible classes is good enough.) Telling students they’re on the remedial track at the age of 18 isn’t much help.

Paying for points

Paying for points raised 12th graders’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in a new study reported in Inside School Research.

NAEP is a no-stakes tests for students who take it. Twelfth-grade scores are low, perhaps because seniors don’t try very hard, realizing the exam doesn’t matter to their futures.

Working with 2,600 seniors from 59 schools in seven states, researchers randomly assigned students to three groups.  One group was paid $20 at the start of the NAEP reading exam.  Another group got $5 in advance and $30 at the end of the session if they correctly answered two randomly chosen questions on the test. The control group just took the exam.

Students who were paid in advance outperformed the control group; students who had to get answers right to earn $30 did the best.  Students who were paid were more likely to say they tried hard and that it was important to them to do well.

“There is now credible evidence that NAEP may . . . underestimate the reading abilities of students enrolled in 12th grade,” the authors write. On the other hand, the black-white achievement gap was larger when monetary incentives were offered, according to the study.

Researchers say it would be too costly to pay all seniors to try hard on NAEP exams.

Bribes-for-books scheme works

Bribing students can work — under some conditions — argues Amanda Ripley in Time. Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr. raised private funds to run an experiment in Chicago, Dallas, Washington and New York. In each city, he ran a different reward model, with an unpaid control group.

The cheapest model was the biggest success: Dallas second graders earned $2 every time they read a book and showed their comprehension on a computerized quiz. The average student earned $14 for seven books per year. Reading scores soared “as if those kids had spent three extra months in school,” Ripley writes. Grades went up too. The effect was greater than far costlier ideas, such as lowering class size or enrolling children in preschool. The rewards stopped the next year, but students continued to do well.

Washington, D.C. middle schoolers were paid for “five different metrics, including attendance and good behavior.” Reading scores rose.

In Chicago, ninth graders got cash for good grades ($50 for an A, $35 for a B and $20 for a C), up to $2,000 a year. Students attended class more often and got better grades, but didn’t improve on end-of-the-year tests.

The New York experiment paid fourth graders and seventh graders to do well on tests. It had no effect.

Fryer thinks students responded more strongly when they understand how to earn rewards and felt they could control their earnings.

(D.C.) kids with a history of serious behavioral problems saw the biggest gains in test scores overall. Their reading scores shot up 0.4 standard deviations, which is roughly the equivalent of five additional months of schooling.

Kids may respond better to rewards for specific actions because there is less risk of failure. They can control their attendance; they cannot necessarily control their test scores.

The high-scoring KIPP charter schools reward students “for actions they can control — getting to school on time, participating in class and having a positive attitude,” Ripley writes. They use the “money” to pay for supplies at the school store.

Recognition, like punishment, works best if it happens quickly. So KIPP schools pay their kids every week. (Interestingly, the two places Fryer’s experiment worked best were the ones where kids got feedback fast — through biweekly paychecks in Washington and through passing computerized quizzes in Dallas.)

. . .  KIPP fifth-graders get a lot of prizes like pencils; high school kids can earn freedoms — like the privilege of listening to their iPods at lunch.

There’s some evidence that rewarding kids for doing the right thing erodes their motivation to do right without a reward. But if we can raise reading levels for $14 per kid . . . It’s tempting to bribe the little kids. They’re cheap.