Sep 1, 2006

money for grades, and it's not from your parents

What I'm about to link to is a form of educational heresy, but here goes:
Harvard economist Roland Fryer is undertaking an impressive experiment in education reform: paying students for performance. According to Scientific American:
Can educators find ways to encourage students to engage in the kind of effortful study that will improve their reading and math skills? Roland G. Fryer, Jr., an economist at Harvard University, has experimented with offering monetary rewards to motivate students in underperforming schools in New York City and Dallas. In one ongoing program in New York, for example, teachers test the students every three weeks and award small amounts--on the order of $10 or $20--to those who score well. The early results have been promising.
As Fryer explained back in 2004, "for years white parents have been giving their kids money for As, now we are trying the same system for black kids." He also notes that preliminary findings show that no other change in education policy increases student test scores so much per dollar invested.

Financial incentives for students are a possible solution to a crucial problem in education: students must be motivated to do the work despite their generally short time horizons. Most of the benefits of a good education won't accrue to children until years after the fact. Yet children and teenagers have notoriously short time horizons and many are unwilling to work hard today for rewards that they can't enjoy until many years later. Fryer's financial incentives represent one possible way to give students more immediate rewards for studying hard. As he points out, middle and upper class parents have often used such rewards for studying for their own children, so the idea is not completely novel.
Commenter Waldensian immediately asks, "What is the evidence that teens have "shorter time horizons" than adults? How does one measure such a thing?" Waldensian must not be a high school teacher or a parent of teens--or a developmental neuroscientist.
The dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, important for controlling impulses, is among the latest brain regions to mature without reaching adult dimensions until the early 20s.
Anecdotal evidence seems to agree with brain imaging. Of course, causation and correlation are difficult to separate with relative crude technology.
The details of the relationships between anatomical changes and behavioral changes, and the forces that influence brain development, have not been well established and remain a prominent goal of ongoing investigations.
Neural development, though, continues well into adulthood. (PBS does a great job summarizing relevant research.)

Let's assume, then, that teenagers in general aren't quite as good at taking the long view--and that grades don't inspire many to work harder. Would it be prudent, then, to motivate students with the promise of cash for good grades? What if intrinsic motivation doesn't exist, and we all have ulterior motives anyway?

The pragmatist in me says, "Screw it. Go with what works." If something is inherently interesting and worthwhile, getting paid to do it won't sap its charm. Besides, education is far from pure in this respect. Grades are every bit as extrinsic as money, yet few are calling for their abolition.

Going back to the original post, Ilya Somin writes,
...I was a terrible student for much of my school career. Although I knew that good grades were important for getting into college, this was too distant a reward to motivate me very much. What turned my situation around was high school debate. If I worked hard on a debate topic for 2 or 3 weeks, I could win a prize at a tournament at the end of that time. And I could go to as many as 10 or 12 tournaments each academic year, which meant getting as many as 10 or 12 prizes, and (more importantly) the prestige that went with them. Although tournament trophies (like Fryer's $10 cash prizes) are trivial in value compared to the long-term benefits of education, they were an immediate reward that provided quick gratification to my teenage mind. Over time, learning to work hard on debate issues also led me to study harder in other classes.
Debate may not have made me a great student, but it kept me going when I thought high school was going to grind my intellect to powder. When I try to figure out why I was such a goody-goody before high school, though, I can't pin it down on any one factor. Loving, prodding parents were probably foremost. But the more I reminisce, the more moments fly back when bought for learning, busting my ass to be done with the standardized test first for those envious looks up from the paper, acing spelling quizzes so I could trade tokens at the "class store" for cinnamon bears. I was cheap.


Mark said...

Stupid idea. If we get kids going into education for the money, we'll have an even more self-centered material-maniacial society than we already have.

Let the black youth sit on their pipe dream of becoming athletic heroes and making millions - I want kids who are motivated to learn by the passion for learning, not by greenbacks, no matter their color.

teacherrefpoet said...

First off, Fryer's stereotyping of middle- and upper-class families as all paying money to their kid for grades. It's wrong on two levels: I know I never got a dime for a grade (nor needed one...I was so grade driven until HS that it was sad), and many of the upper-class kids I teach get money, BMWs, trips, etc., etc., from their parents regardless of their GPAs.

I'm all for positive reinforcement: when I taught sixth grade, I gave "Room 36 dollars" which could be exchange once a month at the "Room 36 Bank" for candy, comic books, sports cards, the right to sit in my chair, yatta yatta yatta.

But the CRITICAL KEY to ANY positive reinforcement system is to work towards its extinction. I was doling out the bucks early in the year to get the kids to understand the way we acted in my room; later in the year, the idea was that they were still on-task and pleasant, but they had forgotten why, and I could stop giving out money. If I did my job right, I had duped them into understanding the joy of learning for learning's sake.

Fryer won't do that. Learning will become a means to a materialistic end, and not an end in itself (or, perhaps sadder, not a means to better the world that's screwing their families over).

Incidentally, I'd be in favor of junking grades altogether--write a couple of paragraphs about each kid rather than giving that damn letter. It'd be a lot more work for my colleagues and me, though, so it ain't ever gonna happen.

Jim Anderson said...

We already have kids "going into education for the money." They hear every day about the earning power of a diploma, how much more they can make with a bachelor's, how education is the key to their economic future.

I agree that Fryer stereotypes the middle class--but his research stands on its own regardless. Dollar for dollar, it gets results. In a desperate situation, results matter.

MT said...

I'm not sure it's the best way to invest in education, but if it's an easy political sell then I say it's great idea. Part of it should be that students have to be transparent about what they do with the money. Maybe they'll get competitive about who gives the most to charity or who picks the best charity. Instead of cash maybe some cooperation could be solicited from Paypal to ensure everything is recorded and spent online. And/or if any want to just save their winnings, the school could offer savings bonds some kind of term account that carries a penalty for early withdrawal.