To get low-income teenagers to spend more time on school work, a new study suggests that schools should pay them.

A recent study released by MDRC and co-authored by NYU Steinhardt researchers J. Lawrence Aber and Pamela Morris analyzed how parents and their teenage children were affected by the Opportunity NYC-Family Rewards program, a three-year conditional cash transfer program launched by the Center for Economic Opportunity in the Mayor’s Office in 2007.

Conditional cash transfer programs offer monetary assistance to low-income families in an effort to reduce short- and long-term poverty while encouraging parents to increasingly invest in their children.

The program was offered to families with children in the fourth, seventh or ninth grades in six of the poorest neighborhoods of New York City. It provided a set of 22 different incentives during its first two years and a smaller amount in the third year, ranging in value from $20 to $600. Incentives were tied to three domains: health, education and work.

Health-focused conditions included maintaining health insurance coverage for parents and their children, in addition to obtaining age-appropriate preventive medical and dental checkups for each family member. Education-focused conditions encouraged children to meet attendance goals in school and attain certain achievement levels on standardized tests and other progress markers. These incentives were also meant to facilitate parental engagement with their children’s education.

Workforce-focused conditions, targeted at parents, included sustaining full-time work and participating in approved education or job training activities.

The MDRC report focused on a subset of families from the Family Rewards’ core sample who had a teenage child in the ninth grade — the oldest age group.

Overall, the program was found to have increased the proportion of teens who spent their after-school and evening time in academically oriented ways; this was especially true among students who were better academically prepared upon entering the study — the same cohort who boasted better overall academic outcomes as a result of Family Rewards.

Among less-proficient students, however, there was not a comparable shift toward spending more time on academic activities -- students also did not report being more engaged in school.

Parents enrolled in Family Rewards were more likely to save for their children’s future education and allocate more money to educational resources. Additionally, the program did not increase parent-teenager conflict or incite anxiety or depression among teenagers; instead, teens in the program group reported lower levels of aggression and substance use than their peers in the control group.

The program had no statistically significant effect on parental monitoring, and did not reduce students’ intrinsic motivation or expectations by offering them monetary rewards for school attendance and academic achievement.

“These results lead to some suggestions for future work. First, more attention needs to be paid to redesigning incentives that would be effective for nonproficient teenagers,” the report’s conclusion states. “Second, future CCT initiatives in the United States also might consider redesigning incentives to directly target pathways of influence in order to produce larger and more sustained impacts on outcomes. For example, rather than incentivizing academic achievement as measured by standardized tests, rewards could offer students incentives for grade point averages or homework. Or they could encourage students to attend academic tutoring programs or to join academic clubs, which have been shown to improve academic achievement and might change the way students approach schooling more effectively.”