It’s unlikely that Newt Gingrich will ever enact his plan to transform impoverished youth into salaried janitors, but 20 years ago, he did briefly manage to pay underprivileged kids for more edifying work. “Earning by Learning” (EBL), a literacy program that Gingrich founded in 1990, paid students two dollars per book to do their summer reading. At its height, the program was operating in at least 17 states. Although it folded in the late 1990s (the House Ethics Committee investigated it for corruption—much of its funding went to Gingrich cronies), and Newt made no apparent effort to revive it, the idea has since caught on.

A range of school districts has experimented with financial incentives. Since 1996, Dallas schools have used an “Earning by Learning” scheme, modeled after, but unaffiliated with, Gingrich’s. The privately-run program operates in 40 of the district's 155 elementary schools and is expanding to Seattle. The KIPP charter schools offer diligent middle school students “scholar dollars” to spend on special field trips and school paraphernalia. Geoffrey Canada’s lauded Harlem Children’s Zone gives middle and high-school students monthly cash stipends of about $100 for regular attendance and class participation. In 2007 and 2008, then-Washington, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor (and education-reform darling) Michelle Rhee briefly paid students to ameliorate a mass truancy problem. In New York City and Dallas, students are being paid to take AP exams. The list goes on. Newt Gingrich would no doubt like to claim credit for these programs. Should he want it?

“The idea is repugnant,” Michigan Professor of Education Susan Neuman told me. Neuman, who specializes in literacy, said that although she had some empirical reasons for doubting the efficacy of cash incentives, her main objections were emotional. “I think there’s a visceral quality about some of these things ... whether they might work or not.” Indeed, the prospect of “bribing” our kids to learn, as a 2010 Time cover story put it, can be read as a condemnation of failed schools and of hopeless students.

Whether or not incentives “work,” however, is a more complicated question. John Guthrie, a leading literacy expert and Professor Emeritus of Human Development at the University of Maryland, says that while incentive programs can provide a preliminary boost for weak readers, they do little to build lasting proficiency. “You’re not going to get a deep reader out of these systems. What you’re going to get is a kid who wants to get the job done and get the points.” David Ciulla, the director of the non-profit ReadWorks, which aims to improve the way reading is taught in schools, makes a similar point, highlighting the low levels of proficiency among low-income and minority students: “The basic assumption people make is you take low income urban students, expose them to books, put more books in the households, [and] have adults read to them,” Ciulla said. That’s fine, he told me, but exposure alone does very little to increase the vocabulary and background knowledge necessary to achieve true fluency.

Another objection rests on the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Edward Deci, a psychologist at the University of Rochester, says that extrinsic cash incentives create temporary motives. “You do the work, you get paid. … Then the money stops. Do you still keep going to work?” In 1999, Deci analyzed 128 studies on incentives that overwhelmingly supported his point that providing extrinsic incentives to perform certain tasks decreased whatever intrinsic appeal they had. A 2005 study by Stanford psychologist Mark Lepper bolstered Deci's case, finding that students who were more intrinsically motivated to perform schoolwork had better grades and test scores than peers who depended upon extrinsic rewards. Opponents of incentives further argue that there are more effective ways to get students to read; expanding the range of school libraries to include books more relatable to low-proficiency readers and letting children choose, and keep, their own books for the summer—such measures, says University of Tennessee literary expert Richard Allington, are more beneficial in the long-term.

Despite all this, school administrators dealing with low graduation and attendance rates are perhaps bound to look more favorably upon incentives than scholars. Another one of Lepper’s findings helps explain why: According to his study, as children get older, between third and eighth grade, their intrinsic motivation to study decreases considerably. The more they’re in school, the less they enjoy it. Rhee saw this firsthand in 2007 when trying to curb middle school truancy. In an ideal world, Rhee told me, every kid would be intrinsically motivated to attend class. But, short of that, “what we owe to our kids is to educate them, [so that] when they graduate from twelfth grade, they are productive members of society.”

A recent, large-scale study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, a 2011 MacArthur grant recipient, has yielded some promising results on this front. In the fall of 2007, Fryer set up cash incentive programs in Chicago, Dallas, D.C., and New York. The twelve million dollar, 38,000-student study (half of it funded by Fryer’s organization, EdLabs; half by the school districts) was the largest ever conducted on the effects of incentives on academic achievement in the US. The results were released last May. In Chicago and New York, where students were paid for grades and standardized test scores, respectively, achievement didn’t improve and the programs were scrapped. In D.C., students made minor progress in attendance, and in reading and math scores, but the program was too expensive to maintain. (Rhee told me she considered it a success, though its results were not included in the final paper due to concerns over sample size.) It was in Dallas, using Gingrich’s EBL framework, that Fryer observed by far the most positive results.

Paying second-graders to read about six books per year (again, two dollars per book) Fryer found that standardized test scores in reading among students comfortable with English increased at a rate that would typically suggest three extra months of schooling. That increase, he found, yielded about the same progress as lowering class size from 24 to 16, for about one percent of the cost. (The results had one powerful downside: “English Language Learners,” who favored Spanish, became significantly worse readers over the course of the experiment.) Intrinsic motivation, Fryer was surprised to find, was not affected significantly, and one year after the study's conclusion, 60 percent of the gains made by the sample group had been retained. Incentivized reading, it seemed, worked for certain students. Observing such sustained increases in reading proficiency led Fryer to his most important finding: effort, or “inputs,” could be incentivized, while improved scores, or “outputs,” could not. (Another study conducted by Fryer, released as a working paper last month, found that a combination of similar “input” incentives—involving parents, teachers, and students—yielded even more impressive results.) 

The argument over the value of EBL and similar programs will likely split the same way many education policy debates do: between aggressive education reformers who stop at nothing to close achievement gaps between minority and white students, and their more romantic opponents, who reject high-stakes standardized testing and pine for a more holistic approach to public education. But one thing you can say about this debate (and we don’t say it often): Newt might have been on to something.

Simon van-Zuylen Wood is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.