Multitasking, Learning, and Incentives: A Cautionary Tale

Houston Independent School District

2010 - 2011


Building off our work in cities across the country, the Math Stars program was designed to investigate whether aligning student, teacher, and parent incentives could yield student achievement gains in math.


During the 2010-2011 school year, we conducted an experiment that aligned incentives for students, parents, and teachers in low-performing schools in Houston, Texas. Students received $2 per math objective mastered in Accelerated Math (AM), a software program that provides practice and assessment of leveled math objectives. Designed to supplement traditional math curriculum, AM allows students to practice objectives independently or with assistance at home, to score their work electronically, and then to demonstrate mastery by taking a computerized test at school. Parents also received $2 for each objective their child mastered as well as $20 per parent-teacher conference attended to discuss their child's math performance. Teachers earned $6 for each parent-teacher conference held and up to $10,000 in performance bonuses for meeting student achievement targets on standardized tests.


Read the NBER Working Paper on the Math Stars program.

The results from this program were interesting, and mixed. There were large treatment effects for outcomes directly tied to incentives. Students in treatment schools mastered more math objectives than students in control schools, and parents in treatment schools attended almost twice as many parent-teacher conferences compared to parents in control schools. By contrast, we observed both positive and negative effects on related outcomes that were not directly tied to incentives (e.g. standardized test scores, parental engagement).