Monday, August 25, 2008

Haimson on Student Pay

A companion piece to the previous post critical of the Rhee in DC plan to pay students.

Check out our open letter to Harvard on the blog at

In an article in yesterday’s Washington Post, Michelle Rhee, head of the DC school system, said she intends to spend $2.7 million to pay 3,000 middle school students up to $100 per month for good attendance, behavior and grades.

Roland Fryer, the Harvard professor and author of this initiative, as well as the experiment in NYC schools designed to give up to $500 a piece to each middle school student for getting high test scores (as well as provide them with free minutes on their cellphones), claims that “Surveys of students and parents show support for the concept.”

What surveys? Our survey of over 1,000 NYC parents showed over 70% strongly opposed paying students for good scores. Another survey done by EdWeek showed that an overwhelming majority (81%) were against schools offering cash rewards to students.

Amazingly, Fryer will evaluate the results of his own NYC experiment in a report to be released this fall – a clear violation of standard research practices.

Meanwhile, a similar program this past year in NYC that cost $2 million to reward students for their AP scores led to fewer students passing the test. Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times last spring, detailing numerous studies that reveal how cash rewards in the long run undermine “the intrinsic satisfaction” of positive behaviors like learning.

As to this particular DC experiment, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said the city has spent an inordinate amount on a school bureaucracy over the years that has failed students. Instead, he said, why not direct some of the cash to the students.

As though there is no choice between wasting money on bureaucracy and offering cash to students for high marks?

“Rhee said she is targeting sixth- through eighth-graders because some students in the group typically have had intractable behavior and academic problems. …The schools need to focus on "how we can ensure that students are engaged, that they are invested in their education," Rhee said. "I think it's incredibly important to make sure students take ownership of their learning."

I love that word “intractable.” Is this is the only way Rhee can imagine to make students more engaged? It’s as though everything else reasonable has been tried, and that DC schools already provide all the personal attention and resources that students need to stay focused and on task.

There is now abundant research showing that given smaller classes, student engagement and achievement rise substantially. See this recent study by Thomas Dee of Swarthmore and Martin West of Harvard; revealing that smaller classes in 8th grade are associated with significantly higher levels of student engagement and expected earnings, with the expected benefit from reducing class size in urban schools nearly twice the estimated cost.

See also this detailed observational report by Peter Blatchford, showing that low-achieving students in the middle and upper grades benefit greatly from smaller classes, in terms of the amount of time spent “on task” and focused on learning, with more than twice as much negative behavior per student in large classes than in small.

According to the Washington Post article, the $2.7 million cost of this experiment will be split almost equally between the school system and Harvard's American Inequity Lab.”

At the same time that Harvard is apparently backing this experiment, it has put tremendous resources into reducing class size for their already high-achieving students, including limiting freshman seminars to twelve students or less. Now, 75% of Harvard’s undergraduate classes have fewer than 20 students, and this effort to reduce class size just caused Harvard to regain the #1 spot in the recent US News and World Report rankings, according to the AP.

Meanwhile, more than 70% of NYC middle school students, who clearly have a far higher need for instructional support and attention, continue to be crammed into classes of 26 or more, with about 70,000 of them in classes of thirty students or more.

While DC Mayor Adrien Fenty says of the DC experiment: “If it seems outside of the box, it is,” unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Amazing how such a controversial initiative with so much research evidence against it can spread like a bad virus.

According to its website, Harvard's American Inequity Lab, which devised and is partially funding this latest outrage, is supported by the following foundations: Broad Foundation,, Kaplan Educational Foundation, National Science Foundation and Smith Richardson Foundation

Check out our open letter to Harvard on the blog at

People should send their own emails to; with copies to,; and

Leonie Haimson
Executive Director
Class Size Matters
124 Waverly Pl.
New York, NY 10011

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