I once worked with a Connecticut foundation whose grantee ran an afterschool program for struggling middle school students. We had been provided a list of students who did significantly better in school during the year they attended this program. We had the permissions needed to speak with them and did so.
In verifying a result, it is not good form to assume a program was responsible for a gain. Or even that the participant saw any improvement. So, my call went this way:
–How are you doing in school? “Fine. “
Any change in your grades this year from last year? “Yes, I am definitely doing better.”
Great. Why is that? “My grandfather moved in with us and said he would give me thirty dollars for every A on each report card and 20 bucks for every B”.
People get better for lots of reasons, including—in this case—a direct incentive. This and other such examples prompt me to think that programs should outperform direct payment to participants in terms of cost per gain.
I can hear the uproar from some readers. How dare you tarnish the value of the services and products we offer participants? I am not diminishing value. I am comparing the value of a program to just investing directly in people to achieve a gain. This is a point made in a different context of my last blog regarding opportunity costs.
Sure, some students need help beyond what a school day can provide. But why not kick-start motivation and engagement by a cash reward? Many programs now pay people to complete surveys. Why not pay them for the results they can then report in them? This approach also has the advantage of building in verification. The cost is incurred after the gain is realized. Another example of this is reducing student debt, which happens after graduation.
And how about hybrid models. If a program costs $50,000 to get 100 kids to grade level reading, that’s $500 per student. If each was motivated to fully participate by $100, four hundred dollars remains to support the program critical to academic achievement.
We need to stay open to such possibilities. And when all else fails, move in the grandfather!