Here’s a common narrative: Students from less privileged backgrounds enter our public schools far behind their peers, and despite the best intentions of all involved, many never catch up.
There's some truth in it. But it is also a dangerous generalization that can cause us to overlook a different, troubling trend. Many students from low income and minority families begin school well prepared and thrive for many years, rising to the top performance levels in their schools, districts, and states. But over time, too many of them slip from that lofty trajectory. Their academic performance goes from outstanding to merely good—or even mediocre.
While it is difficult for any student to remain at the top of the performance distribution year after year, high-achieving students of color and those from lower income backgrounds slip more than their peers. This could happen for a host of reasons, among them limited access to rigorous educational opportunities inside and outside their schools alike. It is a heartbreaking pattern that derails educational and economic opportunity.
Does it have to be like this?
Based on our interactions with families across Louisiana, we developed a hypothesis that one cause for slippage could be a shortage of specific, personalized recognition for outstanding students. What if there wasn't a shared understanding on the part of the student themselves, their families, and their teachers and school leaders that they were high performers who could rise to meet any challenge? In collaboration with the Louisiana Department of Education, we designed an experiment to test this hypothesis.
Today, we're sharing the results of this test in a new paper called The Honors Packet Experiment: Can Celebrating High-Achieving Students Encourage Future Success? In what we called the "Honors Packet Experiment,” schools across four Louisiana districts were grouped into either treatment or control groups. In treatment group schools, students who scored in the highest category (“Advanced”) on the state’s annual standardized test, the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP), received an unexpected packet in the mail celebrating their achievement. Each packet contained a congratulatory letter from the state superintendent, a letter to the student’s current teacher, a certificate of achievement, a list of ideas for how parents can encourage continued academic success, and a $10 gift card. In control group schools, students did not receive a packet.
We envisioned multiple possibilities for how the packets could lead to new outcomes. One was that recipients would feel proud about their achievement and be more engaged academically throughout the school year, mastering more material. Another was that they would put forth more effort on test day, knowing a good performance could earn them further recognition. We even wondered whether the letters to teachers would inspire them to push students more, knowing their past accomplishments.
After the following year’s LEAP administration, we compared outcomes between recipients and non-recipients to see if the packets seemed to have any bearing on students’ subsequent achievement levels.
Among students overall, we did not see any major impact from the packets; on average, those who received one performed quite similarly the following year to students who did not receive one.
But when we looked at subgroups of students, we began to see differences. In particular, Black students who received the packets outperformed those who did not; in English language arts, those results were statistically significant.
Importantly, the size of the effect was notable. Although translating such effects into plain terms is difficult, we estimate that it is equivalent to approximately two additional months of student learning—a meaningful outcome for an historically underserved group that represents more than 40 percent of students in Louisiana’s public schools, at a cost of less than $30 per packet.
So what do we make of this?
We think these findings point to several interesting areas for further exploration. We’re curious to see if follow-up experiments lead to similar (or better) outcomes; if student achievement patterns, particularly for Black students in the treatment group, are sustained over time; and how other groups of students (for example, those scoring in the mid or lower achievement categories) might respond to a positive intervention of this kind.
For us, the bottom line is this: Recognizing and celebrating students’ accomplishments should be a consistent priority. For states and districts, this kind of recognition is a relatively low-cost, light-touch investment—and the data suggests it’s one worth trying. Though we can’t say yet whether such simple recognition will have a measurable impact on long-term student outcomes, sending students and their families a long-distance high-five is a way to show our collective investment in their success. Even better, it could prove to be a valuable defense against academic slippage. And if nothing else, it makes students feel good about learning and thriving—and we should all be excited about that.