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The Behavioralist Goes to School: Leveraging Behavioral Economics to Improve Educational Performance

  • Steven D. Levitt
  • John A. List
  • Susanne Neckermann
  • Sally Sadoff

Research on behavioral economics has established the importance of factors such as reference dependent preferences, hyperbolic discounting, and the value placed on non-financial rewards. To date, these insights have had little impact on the way the educational system operates. Through a series of field experiments involving thousands of primary and secondary school students, we demonstrate the power of behavioral economics to influence educational performance. Several insights emerge. First, we find substantial incentive effects from both financial and non-financial incentives on test scores. Second, we find that non-financial incentives are considerably more cost-effective than financial incentives for younger students, but were less effective with older students. Third, and perhaps most importantly, consistent with hyperbolic discounting, all motivating power of the incentives vanishes when rewards are handed out with a delay. Since the rewards to educational investment virtually always come with a delay, our results suggest that the current set of incentives may lead to underinvestment. Fourth, in stark contrast to previous laboratory experiments, we do not see an increased response of effort when rewards are framed as losses. Our findings imply that in the absence of immediate incentives, many students put forth low effort on standardized tests, which may create biases in measures of student ability, teacher value added, school quality, and achievement gaps.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 18165.

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Date of creation: Jun 2012
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Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:18165
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