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Earn-to-Learn: Innovative Incentives for Learning

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Yesterday I read a troubling article in the Denver Post. It reported that thirty percent of third graders in Colorado are not reading at grade level. Coupled with the fact that the proportion of Denver Public Schools third graders testing at or above grade level on the reading portion of the CSAP exam is even lower--barely over half--there is certainly reason to be concerned.

It is against this backdrop of a dire and obvious need to improve childhood reading skills in our state, especially for low-income students, that I introduced a bi-partisan bill--SB 210--that aims to introduce incentives for children to read books outside of school.

Let me take a moment to explain how I got here. As the former President of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) Academy in Denver, I saw first-hand how innovative approaches to education--including providing children with tangible incentives to achieve to their maximum potential--can result in huge learning gains for those vulnerable students served least-well by the educational status quo. In 2004, I read a particularly inspiring article by Paul Tough which explained a creative new approach to education in Harlem: the now-famous Harlem Children's Zone, cited by President Obama as a national model for improving inner-city education. For the purposes of this bill, Harlem Children's Zone provides a wonderful case study of how to identify a struggling community and revitalize it with creativity, cooperation, and, yes, money.

While examining innovative approaches to improve education in low-income communities, I read an article in Time Magazine that got me really excited. It explains how Harvard economist Roland Fryer, Jr. ran four different studies on using a variety of monetary incentive programs to improve educational outcomes for students in underperforming school districts.

In Chicago, Fryer's team paid ninth-graders an average of $695.61 per year for the grades they earned in their classes. In Washington, D.C., middle schoolers were paid an average of $532.85 per year for their performance on a variety of indicators, which always included attendance and behavior. In New York City, fourth- and seventh-graders earned an average of $139.43 and $231.55, respectively, for their performance on standardized tests.

Most astounding, though, were the results of the simplest of Fryer's experiments, which took place in Dallas. Fryer's team paid second-graders an average of $2 per book read outside of the classroom. In order to be compensated, the students had to demonstrate comprehension, which was achieved with the help of a simple software program featuring quizzes for all the books available in the classroom. The average student earned only $13.81 over the course of a year, but, contrasted with the mixed results of the other three (more expensive) incentive programs, the Dallas program had a very positive measurable impact on learning. Quite simply, the reading comprehension scores of the students improved as though they had spent three more months in the classroom compared with their control-group peers.

Without having to dig too deep, it is apparent that if paying students to read books outside of school on the order of only $14 per year produces results comparable to those to be expected had the students remained in school for the entire summer, it is an approach worthy of examining and implementing in some capacity here in Colorado.

When I spoke with Professor Fryer, he not only mentioned that his Harvard Education Lab is interested in running a similar study here in Denver, but that he would be excited to work with Colorado to implement a successful locally-tailored of the project in our low-income communities--including our often-overlooked rural communities. This is an exciting opportunity for Colorado to partner with a nationally-renowned scholar to explore potentially game-changing public policy based on rigorous academic research.

You may be asking yourself at this point: what does the bill do, exactly? Senate Bill 210 authorizes the existing Read to Achieve Board to award incentive grants annually to organizations that operate within educationally underserved communities. The funds would be disbursed for the purpose of implementing pay incentives for elementary school students to read books and funding evaluation programs to measure success. To get funding, an organization must operate the reading program in conjunction with at least one public school or library located in an eligible community.

Some opponents of the bill argue passionately that paying our children to read books sets a dangerous precedent. They assert that students should be learning and reading for the intrinsic value of the education, not for the promise of monetary gain. Their point is a fair one. In many ways, I agree with them: it would be ideal if each of our children took accountability for, and derived pleasure from, the wonderful process of learning.

We must ask ourselves, however, why this has not yet been the case for so many of our youth--particularly the most vulnerable among them. Despite our efforts and the selfless dedication of teachers, principals, and parents, third grade reading scores have remained largely stagnant over the past decade. This outcome is unacceptable, and in my position as a state legislator, I am unwilling to defer responsibility for yet another year or to the federal government. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, "[i]t is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."

And that is precisely what I intend to do: try something. The price of failure is far too high for us not to do everything reasonably within our power to make sure that our children--all of them--are reaching their full academic potential.