CLOSE

Fifth-graders at select Houston ISD schools will get paid several hundred dollars this year for passing math tests — and their parents will earn money, too – under a rare experiment to try to boost student performance.

The Houston school board signed off today on the $1.5 million program, which is funded by the Dallas-based Liemandt Foundation.

The incentives will go to students and parents at 30 schools that rank among the lowest in math performance. The district has not yet picked the schools, but principals and fifth-grade math teachers will have to commit to the project if they want to be chosen.

The experiment – thought to be the first of its kind to offer incentives to parents and students – will allow students to earn up to $440 for passing short math tests. Parents will get the same amount for their children’s performance, and they can earn an additional $160 for attending eight conferences with the teacher to review the children’s progress.

“This is trying to say (to parents), ‘We want you to be involved with this math process,’ ” said Chuck Morris, HISD’s chief academic officer. “And it is an incentive for them to take that time to go to the school.

“In many cases, where we have parents who are working hard and are barely making ends meet – 80 percent of our kids are on free- and reduced-lunch – why shouldn’t we help them in order to be more involved?”

Parents can opt out of the pay program, which also will give teachers $40 per student for the parent conferences.

The Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University is partnering with the Houston Independent School District to study the experiment. The lab, led by Roland Fryer, an economics professor, has done other studies on student incentives in Chicago, Dallas, New York City and Washington, D.C.

The other programs yielded mixed results, with improved student performance in Dallas and Washington.

The Houston program appears to be based on the Dallas work. Second-graders in Dallas were paid $2 per book they read once they passed a simple quiz to confirm they had done the reading. Fryer’s study found that the students who were promised money improved in reading comprehension and language more than those who weren’t offered money.

In HISD, the students and their parents will get $2 for each math objective the children masters. Students will get practice math assignments and then will take a five-question test. They will get the money for answering at least four questions correctly.

Parents will get their money in the form of debit-like cards. The district plans to encourage the students to get their money directly deposited into a savings account that HISD will help set up. Workshops on savings and financial management are included in the program.

HISD Trustee Paula Harris said she wanted to make sure the district set goals for what results it expects from the incentive program.

“That being said, I think it is a wonderful research project,” she added.

The Harvard researchers will compare the results of students at the schools paying students with those at similar HISD campuses not in program. The analysis will include students’ scores on standardized tests, student behavior, attendance and teacher outcomes such as retention and migration, according to the district’s written proposal.

This pay experiment, which HISD Superintendent Terry Grier announced today, minutes before the school board approved it, is different from his earlier plan to pay students for attending Saturday tutoring sessions. That plan, which targeted nine campuses in Grier’s so-called Apollo 20 reform plan, is on hold. Morris said the students at the Apollo 20 schools already have an extended school day and year, so Saturday tutorials might not be necessary.

ericka.mellon@chron.com