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Paying to fail?

October 18, 2010

Simon Burgess

Today, a very special education policy experiment was revealed.

In the past, policies have been introduced aiming to incentivise schools and teachers to raise educational attainment. These have been effective to a degree: our evidence shows that performance pay for teachers does raise educational attainment; competition among schools also has some impact, albeit much weaker.

This new policy incentivises students themselves. And in a break from past policies, this scheme directly incentivises students to fail their exams.  It is reported that Blackburn College will pay £5000 to each student who fails her/his exams. This intriguing new policy will certainly add to the research evidence on how (not) to raise attainment.

This issue is taken seriously in the US with a number of landmark policy experiments raising attainment for some of the more deprived and low-attaining groups in the country. At Harvard, Roland Fryer reports on the results of a large scale experiment in which students were incentivised in different ways. In some schools students were paid on results, and in some schools they were paid for activities leading towards better results, such as attendance and completing homework. The results were mixed, but the latter class of experiments were effective and cost-effective. Similarly, C. Kirabo Jackson at Cornell has shown that the Advanced Placement Incentive Program in Texas produced some very exciting results from paying 12th grade students for test-passing scores. Such students are more likely to attend college, do better when they attend college and are less likely to drop out. Similar experiments have taken place in the Harlem Children’s Zone

These experiments give us an idea of the value of a policy to incentivise student achievement. As far as I know, Blackburn’s policy is the first chance we have had to study the value of a policy to incentivise student failure.

More seriously, the idea of a commitment device is standard: something that penalises the provider if something does not work out as planned. A long warranty on a car is one way of the manufacturer raising the cost to itself of the car failing. But in a case such as studying for exams, where student effort is so hard to observe, and where good or bad luck can play such a role, what economists call the “moral hazard” problem is very severe.

There are obvious alternatives – the College could pledge to give £5000 to a local charity for every student that fails the exam. That would still appropriately hurt the provider for failure on their part, without giving marginal students a very high temptation for failing at the last.

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