Money Talks (sometimes); Kids Listen (sometimes)

Research has long indicated that people respond to incentives .  The idea that fine-tuning the incentive can produce the desired behavior or outcome has been codified as a bedrock principle in the science of management.  By extension, there have always been proponents for the idea of paying students for academic achievement.  Consider, for example, the number of parents who pay their children for achieveing a certain grade point average, or some charter schools which allow students to accrue a certain amount of financial credit for tasks within their control, e.g. getting to school on time or participating in class, which can then be redeemed for schools supplies or field trips.

In a recent edition of Time, Amanda Ripley offers a compelling account of Harvard economist, Roland Fryer’s work with incentives (financial) and students.  In ‘Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?’ , Ripley details Fryer’s recent study in which students in four cities (New York, Washington D.C..Dallas, and Chicago) were paid for specific tasks – everything from reading books to attending class.  Though Fryer’s work has generated enormous controversy, the findings are thought-provoking.  Younger students appear to have exhibited the most positive results, specifically, the second grade students who were paid to read more books.  For every book read, these students received $2.  By the end of the study, reading comprehension scores rose dramatically.  While the idea of paying students for ordinary academic tasks is an anathema to some, one thing seems clear: Fryer’s research lends yet more evidence to the growing body of research that shows the more one reads, the stronger one’s reading ability becomes.

It’s worth noting that not all of the results were as positive.  In certain cases, the incentives appeared to have no effect at all.  Where incentives appeared to be the most powerful were cases in which students had direct control over their actions and could easily affect the outcome.  For example, in cases where students were incented for behavior and attendance, the incentives appeared to produce the desired outcome.  In other cases, students were incented for overall academic performance.  But overall academic performance is often tied to a student’s content knowledge.  Incenting a student to find the supplement of an angle under certain conditions when the student doesn’t even know where to begin is unlikely to produce the desired result, anymore than would asking a student to ‘read harder’ when faced with a text 700L above his reading level.  There are multiple steps involved in acquiring that sort of content knowledge, e.g. staying after class to ask for help, re-reading the chapter to identify gaps in learning, etc… and many students seemed unable to directly tie the incentive to the intervening steps necessary to produce the desired outcome.  Incentives appeared to be the most effective in those cases where the necessary steps were obvious and within a student’s locus of control.

For all the contention Fryer’s work has sparked, it’s worth reading – if only because it furthers the conversation about the sorts of incentives and motivations that drive us all.

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.