National Public Radio (NPR) and Singdao Newspaper interviewed IEMS’ Sujata Visaria on her research into the effectiveness–or lackthereof–of incentive schemes on classroom attendance in elementary school children.
As discussed in the NPR article:
It seems like a no-brainer: Offer kids a reward for showing up at school, and their attendance will shoot up. But a recent study of third-graders in a slum in India suggests that incentive schemes can do more harm than good.
The study, a working paper released by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, looked at 799 boys and girls. The kids, mostly age 9, were students in several dozen single-classroom schools run by the nonprofit Gyan Shala in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city of Ahmedabad.
So the researchers challenged kids in about half of the classes: Over a designated 38-day period, show up for at least 32 days — that’s 85 percent of the time — and get a special gift: two pencils and an eraser.
That might not sound like much. And it’s not as if these kids couldn’t get a pencil or eraser some other way, notes Sujata Visaria, an economist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a co-author of the study. Still, such items are a treat in the slums where these kids live, Visaria says.
Although attendance during the 38-day study period increased for the vast majority of children (i.e. for pre-study high-attending and low-attending children), after the conclusion of the study low-attending children were only 1/4 as likely to show up to class.
What happened? Visaria speculates that for these low-attending students, the incentive program underscored how poor their attendance was. So they may have lost what little motivation they had to begin with. Other findings in the study bolstered that theory. After the reward program concluded, the kids with lower original attendance rates were less likely to feel confident about their scholastic abilities than before.
Visaria says this result was not just unexpected and cautionary but disheartening. She and her fellow researchers had been prepared for the possibility that the reward program would not prove particularly helpful, or that any positive effects would not last. But they never expected it to leave children worse off.
“I almost felt badly about what we had done,” she says. “That in the end, we should not have done this reward program at all.”
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