‘Membership Has Its Privileges’: Status Incentives and Categorical Inequality in Education

Thurston Domina, Andrew M. Penner, Emily K. Penner

Sociological Science, May 6, 2016
DOI 10.15195/v3.a13


Prizes – formal systems that publicly allocate rewards for exemplary behavior – play an increasingly important role in a wide array of social settings, including education. In this paper, we evaluate a prize system designed to boost achievement at two high schools by assigning students color-coded ID cards based on a previously low stakes test. Average student achievement on this test increased in the ID card schools beyond what one would expect from contemporaneous changes in neighboring schools. However, regression discontinuity analyses indicate that the program created new inequalities between students who received low-status and high-status ID cards. These findings indicate that status-based incentives create categorical inequalities between prize winners and others even as they reorient behavior toward the goals they reward.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Thurston Domina: School of Education, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Email: tdomina@email.unc.edu

Andrew M. Penner: Department of Sociology, University of California, Irvine.  Email: penner@uci.edu

Emily K. Penner: Center for Education Policy Analysis, Stanford University. Email: epenner@stanford.edu

Acknowledgements: Research reported in this article was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under Award Numbers P01HD065704 and K01HD073319, by the Institute for Education Sciences under Award Number R305B130017, and by the Spencer Foundation under Award Number 201400180. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health, the Institute for Education Sciences, or the Spencer Foundation. The authors are grateful to Marianne Bitler, Thomas S. Dee, Ken Dodge, Greg Duncan, David Frank, Eric Grodsky, Andrew McEachin, Evan Schofer, Jeff Smith, and participants in the colloquia at Brown University and University of Wisconsin for useful comments and discussions.

  • Citation: Thurston Domina, Andrew M. Penner, and Emily K. Penner. 2016. “‘Membership Has Its Privileges’: Status Incentives and Categorical Inequality in Education.” Sociological Science 3: 264-295.
  • Received: June 23, 2015.
  • Accepted: August 17, 2015.
  • Editors: Olav Sorenson
  • DOI: 10.15195/v3.a13

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