Last year, 27 percent of Ohio students were chronically absent, meaning they missed more than 10 percent of the school year for any reason. In districts such as Columbus and Cleveland, more than half of students were chronically absent. That’s an enormous problem, as absenteeism negatively impacts student achievement.
In December, Ohio House lawmakers Bill Seitz and Dani Isaacsohn proposed a rather creative idea with House Bill 348, legislation that would provide cash incentives to kindergarteners and ninth graders for regular school attendance. Yet after news coverage of the bill appeared in mid-January, a few Columbus Dispatch readers belittled the idea in letters to the editor. The Youngstown Vindicator editorial board also scoffed, calling the idea “ridiculous.”
Skeptical reactions are perhaps understandable, as the public might reasonably expect students to attend school without the need for incentives. But I think the House proposal deserves further consideration. The nutshell reasoning is this: First, education scholars have studied the impacts of financial incentives, and the results show promise, especially when the incentives are thoughtfully designed. Second, the legislative proposal itself—a modest pilot project—has commendable features that generally follow the research and could even yield further insight into the effectiveness of incentives. The remainder of this piece takes a closer look at the research and then turns to the specifics of House Bill 348.
Research on financial incentives in K–12 education
Offering “carrots” to motivate certain behaviors is a commonly used tactic. Parents offer their toddlers a treat to learn basic tasks like going to the bathroom. Employers reward workers with year-end bonuses for a job well done. Decades ago, I participated in Pizza Hut’s Book It program to earn free pizza for reading books. Whether these types of motivators actually change behavior and outcomes is routinely discussed and debated, and researchers have conducted experiments in education settings that explore whether cash incentives for students might be worth a shot.
Roland Fryer of Harvard University has conducted the most extensive analyses of cash incentives, carrying out pilots in Chicago, Dallas, Houston, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Based on random assignment, some students in these locales were eligible to receive a reward, while others were not—a method that provides strong evidence about the impact of the incentive. He varied the incentives by city in an effort to find which structures might work best.
The experiments in Dallas, Houston, and Washington, D.C., yielded the best results. In Dallas, for instance, English-speaking students who participated in a book-reading incentive program made impressive gains equivalent to roughly two additional months of learning on standardized exams. However, in places where incentives were more directly tied to achievement outcomes—Chicago and New York City—results were not significant.
From his extensive body of work, Fryer concludes that the design of a cash-incentive program matters immensely. Specifically, tying incentives to educational “inputs” is generally more effective than linking them directly to an academic outcome. Students tend to have more control over inputs and a clearer understanding of how to earn the incentive. Reading a book and passing a short quiz on it, as in Dallas, is more straightforward than asking students to figure out how to improve their test scores. But the response to the incentive does, he found, ultimately produce a better academic result.
Ohio’s cash-incentive proposal for attendance
Under the recently proposed legislation, school districts could apply to the state to have up to two of their schools participate in the cash-incentive program. Such schools must have high chronic absenteeism rates. From there, the Department of Education and Workforce would randomly assign kindergarten and ninth graders attending selected schools to “treatment” or “control” groups (i.e., eligible for the incentive or not). Students could earn roughly $500 to $600 per school year when they achieve an attendance rate of 90 percent or higher. The overall price tag for the pilot is very modest—$250,000 in year one and $500,000 in year two—likely making the program possible at just a small handful of Ohio schools.
As proposed, the program has several strengths. First and foremost, it addresses an urgent issue that requires policy attention. Although there are efforts afoot to encourage better attendance, none are quite as direct as what HB 348 proposes. Kindergarten and ninth grade are sensible places to start, too, as absenteeism is higher in those grades. And by focusing on a straightforward “input” such as attendance—something that families and students can control—research suggests that there’s a greater likelihood that the program will boost attendance and, perhaps, achievement, as well. As an added benefit, the program’s use of random assignment could yield rigorous experimental evidence that helps inform whether initiatives like this should be scaled (or not) in future years.
As with any policy proposal, there are also some tweaks lawmakers should consider that would make the bill even stronger. Here are three possibilities.
First, raise the bar for attendance. As proposed, students only need to have a 90 percent attendance rate to earn the incentive. That basically means not being chronically absent, as chronic absenteeism means missing 10 percent of school. To receive the cash incentive, students should have to attend school at least 95 percent of time.
Second, scrap the more problematic incentive based on high school graduation. In addition to the attendance incentive pilot, House Bill 348 includes a companion piece intended to incentivize high school graduation. While Ohio still has too many dropouts, graduation rates have actually increased in recent years. Moreover, a financial incentive is highly unlikely to encourage students who are far behind in meeting graduation requirements. Those students are certainly in need of help, but a modest incentive for graduation is unlikely to motivate them, as achieving that goal would take significant time. Even for students who are right on the cusp of meeting graduation requirements, a financial incentive is unlikely to nudge them further along, as the promise of a diploma is an incentive in and of itself.
Third, add language that would explicitly require an independent evaluation of the pilot program. Although the bill wisely structures the pilot in a way that is amenable to research, it doesn’t actually call for a study of its impact. That’s a missed opportunity, as policymakers could use such research to shape future attendance efforts.
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Poor attendance is a real issue for schools in Ohio and across the nation. This not only hurts students who miss learning opportunities, but creates challenges for educators who must expend even more effort to remediate chronically absent students. Initial skepticism around House Bill 348 is understandable, given society’s expectation that children should be in school. But absenteeism has hit crisis levels, even with that expectation in place. To comprehensively address the issue, schools need a toolkit of carrots, prods, and supports. If passed, and if it proves effective, HB 348 would be another tool in that kit.
 Other notable experimental studies on cash incentives in K–12 education include Eric Bettinger’s study from Coshocton, Ohio, which found positive impacts on math test scores (but not reading), and Steven Levitt, John List, and Sally Sadoff’s work in Chicago-area districts, which generally finds short-term impacts of incentives, provided they are awarded promptly (not on a delay).
 The bill proposes to experiment with three different payment methods based on 90 percent or higher attendance rates during the time period: $25 paid biweekly, $150 paid quarterly, or $500 per year. For kindergartners, the incentive funding would be directed to their parents. For ninth graders, it would be payable to the student and parents jointly.
 In addition to paying a “base” incentive of $250 for graduation, the bill awards higher cash incentives based on high-school graduates’ GPAs. Unfortunately, that could create a perverse incentive for teachers to further inflate course grades. In Fryer’s work from Chicago, he found that directly incentivizing course grades did not yield achievement gains on exams.