Education Opinion

Money for Nothing

By Nancy Flanagan — April 14, 2010 2 min read
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Sign of the Apocalypse?

Cover of Time Magazine: Should Schools Bribe Kids?
Answer: Maybe. (Because it “works.” Sometimes.)

Well. My first thought is that it shouldn’t take a team of hip Harvard-based researchers and a $6.3 million payout (you read that right) to know that when you bribe kids, they’ll generally do what you want them to do. For as long as you’re paying them, anyway. Kids aren’t crazy. Adults will also do lots of things they’re not comfortable with for money, although the plan occasionally fails when some ratfink grows a conscience. (See: Enron, et al.)

Before we get on our moral high horses here, however, it should be noted that bribing kids is standard operating procedure in pretty much every school, fully supported by parents, teachers and the principal. Popcorn parties for kids who pass the statewide assessments. Lunch with the superintendent for being Student of the Month. Gold medals for winning the spelling bee. And my personal nominee for cheesiest reward: junky plastic prizes for kids who sell the most sausage and candy in the school fund-raiser.

The fact that economist Roland Fryer seems to have pumped this technique up exponentially, then promoted it as rigorous, scientifically-based research shouldn’t change our reservations about paying kids for test scores, attendance or good behavior. I am sincerely hoping that Fryer’s funders are equally interested in what happens in test-case schools when the payoffs for showing up at school or reading books are withdrawn.

I also hope they’re watching news stories on the kids joyfully returning to school (usually in tents, often with unpaid teachers) in Haiti. You know, so they can learn. And have a better future.

Time describes the results of studies done in four cities, as having no effect, mixed effects, positive effects (in Washington D.C., where middle schoolers can earn as much as $200 a month for attendance and good behavior)--and very positive effects. This sterling example--in Dallas, using 2nd graders--was also cost effective, as researchers only had to cough up $2 for each book read. Average payout was just under $14 per, and the “dramatic” result was a jump in reading comprehension scores.

Let me just say--Duh! If I’m getting the math right, that means kids read seven more books than they would have otherwise. And reading more books--not those $14 checks--caused reading comprehension to rise. In other words, an elaborate Harvard research project featured on the cover of a major newsmagazine caused roughly the same effect as the Pizza Hut “Book It” program. Except that kids didn’t have to bug their parents to cash in their Personal Pan Pizza coupons.

I just interviewed a wonderful teacher who gets reluctant teenage readers--a very different group of test subjects than impressionable second graders--to read widely and deeply, every day, for all the right reasons. She shared some of her secrets for achieving that small miracle: finding the right literature, being a good audience for kids’ ideas about what they read, sticking with them as they resist the habit of sustained reading, creating a culture where reading is pleasurable. Maybe Harvard should be giving Claudia Swisher, and teachers like her, a few million to spread these simple ideas. But that would mean investing in long-term growth, rather than pursuing yet another silver bullet.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.