The Incentive for Incentives

If you’ve been following this blog, you’re no doubt familiar with the power of incentives to inspire performance in a myriad of ways. From combatting the California drought to encouraging healthier habits, it seems that applying thoughtful and strategic incentives can overcome any difficult task. Incentive programs have become powerful tools for reinforcing behaviors, encouraging growth, and inspiring performance, and with the track record of successful business transformation and everyday examples of incredible results, the incentive for using incentives is higher than ever. So, let’s see how performance incentives stand up to the gauntlet of a dauntless task: reforming the American Education system.

Remedial Incentives

There was a story in The New York Times recently that illustrated with amazing clarity the power of incentives to transform a culture and inspire performance. Brashear High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is not considered a high-achieving institution. Brashear is analogous to many schools in this county – located in areas that are low-income, rural, or otherwise underserved –  which leaves the teachers and students without vital resources for the development of staff and student alike.

This is reflected most glaringly in the A.P. scores of the students, which are statistically and critically low. To inspire both the students and teachers of Brashear to perform at levels beyond their stead, they would have to be provided an incentive program which was attainable, sustainable, and personable. Most importantly, their program had to be successful.

Training Day

The National Math and Science Initiative is a nonprofit group who has undertaken the task of improving the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) capabilities of impacted or at risk schools across the country. They came to Brashear High with an initiative designed to offer resources and training to the beleaguered teachers, Saturday study sessions to the struggling student body, and financial rewards for both.

Using the A.P. tests as a criteria and a grading scale, the National Math and Science Initiative offered this challenge to Brashear: For every passing grade on the A.P. tests (a three or higher for the test, which is scored one to five), the organization would pay the student and teacher each $100.

Advanced Placement

The track record for this National Math and Science Initiative has been impressive to say the least – on average, schools that subscribe to the challenge see passing scores on Math and Science A.P. tests jump 85% in the first year, which nearly triples by year three. These are incredible results in their own right, but the success in Brashear truly puts incentives on the map. Prior to the initiative, Brashear’s 1400 students produced 159 A.P. science and math applicants, with 10 total passing scores among them.

Following the establishment of the financial incentive plan, the school’s students and teachers produced 33 passing grades, a 154% increase in success. Across the board, Brashear students in every focused discipline saw an increase in total passing scores, a trend witnessed across the state in other high schools as well. Maybe most promisingly, the number of students enrolling in the A.P. classes themselves rose dramatically, from 328 to 469 students.

Making the Grade

However you slice it, the students and teachers of Brashear have benefitted tremendously from the introduction of an incentive program to their community. Such a program has succeeded in its infancy, and will hopefully snowball as time goes on and the reality of the offered incentives sinks in. The heroes of this story are the students and teachers who worked hard to achieve those scores, along with the generosity of the National Math and Science Initiative which backed them. But this success was also made possible by utilizing the power of incentives to drive behavior and inspire performance, and those who pay close attention to this story would do well to take that lesson to heart when they address their own problems.


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The Incentive for Incentives

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