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.)