How to get kids to attend tutoring? Certificates worked better than cash in recent study

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, low-income kids at struggling schools can get free after-school tutoring in math and reading, but it’s tough to get them to stick with it.

Schools could pay students to attend, but a certificate signed by the superintendent — the sort of document a proud parent might display on the fridge — could be a less expensive, more effective motivator, according to a recent study from Vanderbilt University.

The study found that middle-school students attended more tutoring sessions over the school year if they received certificates signed by the school superintendent than if they received $100. Recognition was an even more powerful motivator for girls.

Researchers randomly assigned about 300 students to receive either a certificate, $100 to spend using an online prize catalog, or no incentive.

The students who got nothing attended about 17 percent of their tutoring hours, and the group that received money didn’t do much better.

But the students who received certificates periodically as they reached attendance goals over the school year completed about 60 percent of their tutoring hours. Of that group, the attendance rate for girls was about 25 percentage points higher for girls than boys.

Researchers were surprised that money had so little effect compared with certificates.

Parents may have been more impressed with the certificates, which in turn could have motivated students to stick with the tutoring, but that wasn’t tested specifically, said Matthew Springer, who directs the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt and co-authored the study.

“When parents from low socioeconomic backgrounds who have children in traditionally failing schools start receiving certificates of recognition from the school superintendent, that could send a pretty strong signal for something that is going right,” Springer said.