Cold Hard Cash to Fifth Graders in HISD Who Do the Math

Students at 25 Houston ISD schools -- and their parents -- will have a chance to earn cash by, get this: Doing their homework!

"Why not?" was the consensus reached today by the seven trustees at a workshop meeting. Equipped with a $1.5 million private donation from the Texas-based Liemandt Foundation, and the results of a study done by the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University (EdLabs), school board members thought "Incentives 2.0" was an innovation worth trying.

The target: 5th-grade math scores at 25 of the elementary schools in town.

According to EdLabs, studies of prior "incentivizing" in school districts in Dallas, Chicago, New York City and Washington D.C. found that paying students to get better grades didn't work. Any improvements were negligible.

But paying kids to complete "input" as in doing their work was a winner. For instance: "Paying students to read books yields a large and statistically significant increase in reading comprehension," the study said.

The study wants to work with elementary students for three reasons:

No. 1: Lower costs or as the study says: "elementary schools are smaller than middle schools, enabling us to ... treat a smaller number of students."
No. 2: They're cheap dates or more technically stated: "younger students have a higher marginal utility of income...the average elementary school student will value making $5 more than the average middle or high school student."
And 3: You're matching math with parents and: "parents are more likely to understand and be capable of assisting their children with the math concepts in fifth grade."

Parents can earn money, too, by attending meetings with their children's teachers and by helping their kids with their homework. Teachers will receive incentive pay as well, but those details haven't been worked out yet.

HISD will be operating the program in partnership with EdLabs and Dr. Roland Fryer, who is also an unpaid adviser on the district's new Apollo 20 program for low-performing schools. The district has a list of 70 elementary schools with low 5th-grade math scores. The names of schools interested in becoming part of the research program will be entered into a lottery "where 25 will be randomly selected to participate and another 25 will be used as a control group," according to an HISD press release.

Here's how it breaks down:

The maximum award for kids is $440. They earn $2 for each math concept mastered for up to 200 concepts and if they get them all, they get a $40 bonus on top of that.
The maximum award for parents is $580 which at the $2 per math concept rate when their kid masters something (again up to $400) and $20 for each of nine parent meetings during the year ($180).
Altogether, parents and a student can earn up to $1,020 a year.

Trustee Michael Lunceford asked what would happen after the first year if the funding isn't renewed. Superintendent Terry Grier said they were told that "if we implement with fidelity and there are results" that the foundation would pick up the costs again.

It was also pointed out that this isn't the first time HISD has operated a program to pay kids for performance. That was done in three high schools with Gates Foundation money and even when that ended, the culture at those schools was changed for the better, trustee Paula Harris said.

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