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On Bribing (I Mean Motivating) Kids to Do Well

August 27th, 2008 . by economistmom

An editorial in this morning’s Washington Post talks about the DC public school system’s fascinating new experiment designed to motivate middle-school students to do well in school–asking the question:  is this “bribery” or “motivation”?…

IN A PERFECT world, children clamor to go to school for the sheer exhilaration of learning. No one is ever late, homework is always completed on time, and everyone knows that success in the classroom can mean success in life. A starkly different world exists for many D.C. children, and too often the reality is one of failure. It is therefore worth exploring whether different incentives — even an unorthodox offer of cash — can motivate students to excel.

Last week, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee unveiled a pilot program in which middle school students will be paid to meet academic and behavioral goals. Starting in October, 3,000 students — half of the middle school population — will be able to earn as much as $100 every two weeks (officials expect the average will be $50 every two weeks) as part of a $2.7 million program being offered with Harvard University.

Announcement of the program was met with predictable, even hysterical, criticism. It’s bribing children to learn! It’s patronizing — and racist — to suggest that African American children must be paid to go to school!

As an economist, and a mom, I don’t see the problem in this–it’s giving the kids that extra, external incentive and reward, and don’t parents who can afford to give their kids these kinds of pecuniary rewards do this all the time?  What’s the difference between bribery and motivation, after all, other than the negative connotation that the word “bribery” has because it’s often illegal when offered to people who aren’t family?  This program seems like a natural way to help offer such rewards/incentives to kids whose parents can’t afford to offer them themselves.  And if the money gets deposited into college savings accounts, even better.

The editorial goes on to mention the Harvard professor who is leading this pilot study:

The goal makes sense: to provide tangible rewards to students who may dismiss school as irrelevant to their lives. Harvard economics professor Roland G. Fryer Jr., who will run the program, says it is easy for middle- and upper-class students to see the benefits of education; they experience the comforts on a daily basis. Not so poor students…

Professor Fryer is a great success story in himself.  See this NYTimes article on him from a few years ago, and this link to his Harvard page.  His research (under “papers”) is fascinating.  (And his Ph.D. in Economics is from Penn State(!)–where I taught for several years, but unfortunately, before his time there.)

3 Responses to “On Bribing (I Mean Motivating) Kids to Do Well”

  1. comment number 1 by: Jim Glass

    The NYC public schools just tried this kind of thing, paying kids to take and pass AP exams.

    Didn’t work. The number of kids who took the exams went up, but the number that passed actually went down.

  2. comment number 2 by: M Gilleland

    When doing this, I hope they don’t miss the opportunity to talk to these students ON A FREQUENT, ON-GOING BASIS, ideally every time they get paid out, about the other reasons why learning (developing knowledge and skills) is essential to their future. It shouldn’t be difficult for a middle schooler to grasp that there are usually multiple reasons why you would do anything and it’s important to be aware of what those reasons are for any given committment of signficant time and effort.

    The risk, if not executed properly, is that students come to believe that the ONLY reason that they should learn (or only reason that really counts) is because of the immediate gratification of a money payout. That would be a huge disservice.

    Tangentially, this reminds me of George Will’s comment (paraphrasing) that “the market is screaming at the top of its lungs for highly educated and skilled workers” and that message ought to be communicated to these students.

    Will also recognizes that ultimately, this problem is all about families — or the breakdown thereof. We need a better strategy for maintaining strong family units in America — this is treating the symptom.

  3. comment number 3 by: Arne

    Wasn’t there a study recently that suggested that when you stop making the payment (for something that some people really enjoy) that the motivation drops below what it was before payments were made?