Thursday, April 29, 2010

Paying kids to achieve

I’ve always had a thing about external reward systems for kids: I believed (and could quote research backing the idea) that these things (stickers, honor rolls, valedictorians, etc.) supplant the intrinsic motivation that we really want our kids to have. I took this to such extremes that I would not tell my kids I was proud of their grades (although I would say, “Aren’t you proud of yourself?”), let alone pay them for A’s as our neighbors did. [Naturally, this meant that my kids were exasperated at never getting those magic words from me; the best laid plans oft go awry.]

Anyway, I certainly never supported the idea of paying kids to perform. A recent Time magazine article on random-sample research has me wondering about that stand. The simple and cheap intervention of paying second graders to read and pass quizzes on books (an average of seven books and $14 per year) had major effects on their achievement test scores. This finding validates my notion that our problems with school achievement are mostly rooted in kids not reading anymore. The effects rivaled the well-substantiated effects of Head Start, which costs one heck of a lot more. I’d love to see long-term follow-up on this experiment’s subjects.

The details? Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr. ran a randomized experiment in hundreds of classrooms in Chicago, Dallas, Washington, and New York City. The programs differed, but students were rewarded for academic achievement (good grades, good test scores, etc.) or for various kinds of behavior (good attendance, not fighting, reading books, etc.) with cold, hard cash. The measure of success would be how the incentivized kids did versus the control groups on end-of-year standardized tests.

Dr. Fryer agrees that “Kids should learn for the love of learning, but they’re not. So what shall we do? I could walk into a completely failing school, with crack vials on the ground outside [and] fights in the hallways! We’re beyond that.”

I had heard, with instinctive disapproval, about the NYC program but not about the results—which turn out to be quite interesting. Paying for good test scores did not work. Paying for attendance improved attendance and grades, but not test scores. Lots of little rewards for improved behavior of various kinds worked a bit, especially for boys. But, in Dallas, “Paying second-graders to read books significantly boosted their reading-comprehension scores on standardized tests at the end of the year—and those kids seemed to continue to do better the next year, even after the rewards stopped.”


Maybe all those crazy elementary school competitions to get kids to read (wherein, if a threshold is passed, the principal promises to go into a dunk tank, or be hit by pies, or shave his head, or whatever) are pure genius. And, given the elemental motivating power of cash (see previous post), maybe offering a cash incentive is not the disgustingly perverse practice I want to think it is.

There was some other interesting analysis, as well, stemming from interviews of the NYC students. They were motivated by the substantial cash rewards they could earn, but they didn’t know how to get there. They didn’t know how to approach the problem of improving their grades, any more than most of us could “solve a third-order linear partial differential equation.” To really change outcomes, kids must know explicitly what to do and must be encouraged to change the things they can control. “The key, then, may be to teach kids to control more overall—to encourage them to act as if they can indeed control everything, and reward that effort above and beyond the actual outcome.”

That, I can buy (pun intended). Anything that spurs children to take control of their lives and stop acting like helpless victims of life is A Good Thing. But that’s another post.

1 comment :

  1. In your prior post, you noted that the "...reptile brain lights up at the prospect of food, sex, AND money." Then you spend this post talking about only money as a motivator. Having once been a high school boy, I can suggest at least one other reptile-brain-lighter that might prove motivating. There may be some operational drawbacks though....