It seems like a no-brainer: Offer kids a reward for showing up at school, and their attendance will shoot up. But a recent study of third-graders in a slum in India suggests that incentive schemes can do more harm than good.
The study, a working paper released by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, looked at 799 boys and girls. The kids, mostly age 9, were students in several dozen single-classroom schools run by the nonprofit Gyan Shala in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city of Ahmedabad.
Gyan Shala's program is free and has a reputation for offering decent quality instruction in language, math and science. Still, attendance rates are no better than the average for the region. On any given day, about a quarter of students are absent. Gyan Shala's administrators believe many opt to stay home and play if, say, it's a festival day or a sibling who attends a different school is off or simply because they're not in the mood for class.
So the researchers challenged kids in about half of the classes: Over a designated 38-day period, show up for at least 32 days — that's 85 percent of the time — and get a special gift: two pencils and an eraser.
That might not sound like much. And it's not as if these kids couldn't get a pencil or eraser some other way, notes Sujata Visaria, an economist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a co-author of the study. Still, such items are a treat in the slums where these kids live, Visaria says.