Panel Paper: The Effect of Incentives for Increasing Summer School Attendance: Evidence From a Field Experiment

Friday, November 9, 2012 : 1:20 PM
Salon D (Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Paco Martorell1, Trey Miller2, Lucrecia Santibanez3, Catherine Augustine3 and Jennifer Sloan McCombs3, (1)RAND Corporation, (2)Pardee RAND Graduate School, (3)RAND

Educational policymakers and researchers have become increasingly interested in the extent to which providing rewards and other incentives to students can bring about desirable behaviors and outcomes. In theory, such incentives could be effective if they counteract lack of motivation or self-discipline that prevents students from engaging in the desired behavior or attaining good outcomes on their own.

This paper reports preliminary estimates of the effect of a randomly assigned intervention which offered incentives to improve attendance in the Pittsburgh Public School’s (PPS) elementary summer school program, known as the Summer Dreamers Academy (SDA). Summer school programs have been found to improve academic achievement (Jacob and Lefgren, 2004; Matsudaira, 2008), but a major impediment to their success is poor attendance (Mariano et al., 2009; Cooper et al., 2000).

The intervention examined here consists of two treatments, one aimed at students and a second that combined the first treatment with another aimed at parents. The student treatment, assigned at the site-by-grade level, offered students the chance to earn a “goody bag” each week consisting of small prizes as a reward for attending four out of five days in a given week. The parent treatment was assigned at the student level to a subset of students in the site-by-grades receiving the student treatment. The parents of students selected for the parent treatment were eligible to receive two gift cards to the largest supermarket chain in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. Receipt of the first card, worth $50, was based on attendance during the first two weeks of the SDA, while the second card, worth $70, was based on the last two and half weeks of the SDA.

To the best of our knowledge, this is the first evaluation based on random assignment of an intervention aimed at improving summer school attendance. In fact, this study constitutes some of the first systematic evidence on the determinants of summer school attendance specifically and attendance in educational programs more generally. This is notable in light of the findings reported in Mariano et al. (2009) that suggest that better summer school attendance is associated with improved performance on subsequent achievement.

The results show that the combination of the parent and student treatments led to a statistically significant increase in the attendance rate by 5 percentage points relative to the control group mean of 57 percent. However, the student treatment alone had a smaller and statistically insignificant effect on attendance, suggesting that the parent incentives drove the effects of the combined treatment. These positive effects appear to be concentrated at the upper end of the attendance distribution. We only find small and marginally significant effects on the probability that an enrolled student attends any days of the SDA, but we find that students in the combined treatment group are nearly 50 percent more likely than the control group to have perfect attendance throughout the SDA.

In ongoing research, we are examining impacts on student achievement on fall 2011 assessments, regular-year school attendance, and spillovers across siblings.