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Bribe The Kids

I've mentioned this once before, but ever since I read a RAND Corporation study on the effects of bribing students for (a) staying in school and (b) improving their grades, I've been eager to see more work along these lines. Intuitively, this sort of standards-and-accountability is the natural complement to the teacher-centric accountability measures we've put in place with NCLB. In addition to its direct effects, I would hope that paying people for doing well in school would help undermine the cultural norm against working hard in school that exists in many pockets of American life. Jane Galt and Marginal Revolution both take a look at some new work that's been done in this area. I think it's a really good idea. Individualized financial incentives for good performance aren't a silver bullet for education reform, but there's plenty of reason to think they really could help.

November 18, 2004 | Permalink


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» Education and Race from FUGOP
In every other performance related field people like the Thernstroms push to eliminate distorted incentives, from environmental regulations to income taxes. Yet in education, where Black Americans, by virtue of employment and wage discrimination, rec... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 18, 2004 5:36:55 PM

» Good Grades? from DaveShearon
Matthew Yglesias is in favor of paying kids to stay in school and get good grades. [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 19, 2004 10:40:05 PM


Worked for me (my parents provided fairly significant rewards for A's and less significant ones for B's in grade school and high school).

Posted by: David Margolies | Nov 18, 2004 2:00:42 PM

I haven't seen the RAND study, but always seemed to me that shame was the most effective motivator--more so even than pride, really. You can be happy for a little while about acing an exam, but shame over failure lasts a lifetime. (OK, maybe it's just me.)

The biggest practical problem I can see with extrinsic rewards is that they create an incentive to cheat. I'm curious how you propose to curb cheating. One way is just to get better at detecting and punishing it. Barring that, shame is once again the best motivator.

Rewards do seem like a possible stopgap, but I think any really effective method of transferring values has to rest of internalizing those values.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Nov 18, 2004 2:11:28 PM

I'm fond of tracking; let the academically talented kids excel in their area while the less talented kids can find their own niches. In addition, it's kind of classist to even have this discussion when there are schools with class sizes of 60, no AC, etc. etc. Let's fix the gushing water main leak before remodelling the bathroom.

Posted by: Kimmitt | Nov 18, 2004 2:21:49 PM

I don't think you can disassociate pride and shame; they're really two sides of the same coin. One of the problems I see with using shame as a motivational tool is that there are two ways to avoid shame---do well or stop trying. If a student is otherwise motivated, they'll simply stop trying to succeed. After all, there's no shame in failing if you didn't actually try, right?

If a student has an intrinsic desire to succeed, then they will succeed, assuming they are given the means to do so. External rewards are really just a substitute for intrinsic motivation.

The question is will external rewards serve to stimulate existing intrisic motivation (a student seeks to excel to earn money, but learns that the pride of success is greater than the material compensation,) or will continued rewards be necessary to maintain success?

Posted by: Andy Wilson | Nov 18, 2004 2:25:49 PM

Bribing children for school performance is a terrible idea - study after study after study shows that extrinsic motivation destroys any sort of intrinsic motivation to learn, read, develop new skills, whatever...

External rewards ARE NOT a subsitute for intrinsic motivation....see Alfie Kohn et al (www.alfiekohn.org)

I find this sort of thinking terrifying, especially Kimmit's suggestion above that tracking is a reasonable solution to anything - kids should never be locked into a path, and they certainly should never be locked into a path in the 2nd grade....

Posted by: Sean | Nov 18, 2004 3:13:05 PM

The real problem would be the middle class kids parents saying "Where's my kid's money?" And the kids involved are getting SUVs for their 16th birthday.

I guess I would set it up as small cash now, scholarship money for later.

Posted by: Contrary Mary | Nov 18, 2004 3:13:25 PM

The post pointing out the use of "fairly significant" rewards seems fairly dispositive to me. At first, this sounded to me something like a subsidized school lunch program: kids who didn't have families that could provide them with food (or rewards for good performance) are able to have these needs met by the school system. OTOH, if such a plan were more modelled on a monetary prize (Clay,Pritzker etc.), it might have the advantage of spurring competition between students while not being a kind of compensation for learning. Likewise, studies aside, it seems to me that our schools must continue to insist on what some would probably consider to be an impossible ideal: the intrinsic value of education and the deferral of gratification for hard work. I guess you might consider me to be a skeptical supporter of this idea.

Posted by: jlm | Nov 18, 2004 3:13:50 PM

Sounds socialistic to me, another big-spender government program. Where is Galt coming from, anyway? Jesus she's wacky.

Posted by: John Emerson | Nov 18, 2004 3:35:29 PM

Read Alfie Kohn's book "Punished By Rewards" to see why this is such a bad, bad idea.

Posted by: Mars | Nov 18, 2004 3:40:51 PM

Before you decide you like rewards, read this article by Alfie Kohn:


and you find it interesting try his book, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes.

Posted by: jr | Nov 18, 2004 3:41:09 PM

Great idea... not.

As if standardized tests don't have enough pressure attatched to them already? Will teachers feel even more pressure to teach to the tests to maximize "incomes" for their students?

If standardized tests are used to determine the incentives (and they'd have to be to prevent too-real grade "inflation") then parents will try to get students to see tutors to ensure that they get good scores - which would be fine, if the tutors did anything other than teach useless "test-taking skills". Which is unlikely. Maybe we'd be better just writing the checks to Kaplan and skip the tests altogether.

If this is a government benefit, imagine all the disability, due process, and equal protection claims. Alleged cheaters need full due process before their rewards can be removed. Testing conditions must be equalized across racial and gender groups, and for all possible disabilities: physical, emotional, mental, cognitive, etc. Tests must be free of any possible bias against any conceivable subgroup. Class-action lawsuits anyone? You've never seen education litigation like this promises...

Who gets the money? Kids? Not really - all that income belongs to parents, just like anything else that "belongs" to a kid. How long before we see stories about "father uses son's good grades to get high!" We're trying to benefit children who don't have the best influences at home - I'm not sure dropping wads of unearned cash into their parent's hands is the best solution. Didn't we try to fix that mistake with welfare reform?

Scholarships? Well, if the intrinsic benefits of college aren't enough to motivate children or teenagers to do well in school (or at least on standardized tests), I have a hard time beleiving that scholarships will be any better.

Tax-free set-aside accounts available at age 18? I suppose the auto makers would like the idea. Maybe it'd teach some financial planning and economics at the same time when every family starts to get quarterly statements...

Posted by: Silent E | Nov 18, 2004 3:52:37 PM

> Read Alfie Kohn's book "Punished By Rewards"
> to see why this is such a bad, bad idea.

Interesting essay. One minor problem with telling your employees to "forget about money" is that for some odd reason CEOs still need incentive pay in the neighborhood of $20 million/year to help them perform. More money per year than I will earn by the sweat of my brow during my entire life.

Why is that?


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Nov 18, 2004 3:56:18 PM

In response to John, he exemplifies the typical conservative attitude towards public education - cut school funding so they can't succeed and then complain about their shortcomings. Now Congress is trying to bully schools and teachers into doing better after years of insulting budget cuts and systemic funding problems. This is fiscal conservatism at its worst. Public education is not some evil "socialist" conspiracy. It's the backbone of our democracy and our capitalist society. It provides the high-skill workforce that drives our economic engine.

He's right that this reform is misguided though. Any serious education reform policy has to begin and end with the people who have the greatest affect on classroom achievement: the teachers. The nation is mired in a teacher retention and teacher recruitment crisis. We also stand on the precipice of a mass-retiring of baby-boom generation teachers in a few years (40% of the current teacher workforce is over 50 years of age - in 1970 it was only 15%).

The teaching profession simply is not attracting and keeping high-quality/high-skill teachers in its ranks. On the retention end, almost a third of the nation’s teachers leave teaching in the first three years of their careers and almost 50 percent exit the profession in the first five years. On the recruitment end, teacher salaries are ridiculously low so we aren't recruiting the quantity and quality that we need to be recruiting into teaching. College graduates can easily make 3 times as much as teaching pays by going into other professions that require similar education levels. Since 1996, teachers’ inflation-adjusted wages rose just 0.8%, lagging far behind the 12% wage growth experienced by all other college graduates and of all workers We are essentially relying on missionairies to teach our children. What happened to the days when teaching was a profession of similar respect as lawyers and engineers?

Posted by: Mike | Nov 18, 2004 4:02:08 PM

I'd be careful listening to Alfie Kohn on education policy. Kohn may have been thoughful sometime in the past, but he's degenerated into a crank who's opposed to any effort to measure what kids learn or ensure they learn what they're entitled to know to succeed in life.

The evidence base for Kohn's arguments is flimsy and based at least as much in normative assumptions--competition is bad, it's more important for kids to enjoy learning than acquire certain skills, etc--than solid empiricism. Sure it's attractive to think people will be intrinsically motivated to do things that also happen to benefit themselves and society, but in the real world, certain real skills matter whether or not you're interested in them, and Kohn doesn't offer compelling and practical ways for teachers to ensure children are intrinsically interested in what they need to learn to have a decent shake in life.

Ironically the natural outcome of Kohn's proposals is a narrowing of human interest and understanding to the most limited and self-interested level. Most people aren't naturally interested in a lot of things until they've been exposed to them and, in many cases, learned enough about them to appreciate them. Sometimes it takes an extrinsic force to push someone to do something before they realize they're interested in it--for example, the guy who tries out for the class play to meet girls and learns he really likes being on stage.

The bigger problem I have with Kohn is that his real complaints aren't about policy or educational practice but human nature. Much as he argues otherwise, people are naturally competitive and motivated by their own self interest. Kohn dislikes this and wants schools to function as social engineers to reshape children's natures. The problem with this is that the progressive movement in education has basically been trying to do this for about a century, with the result that schools focused more on social engineering than teaching kids the skills they needed to succeed in life. But the world still functioned based on incentives and rewards for useful skills, so middle class parents ensured their kids still got those skills. Poor kids who had no place but schools to learn skills didn't and wound up with limited opportunities.

Kohn's arguments may sound progressive and pleasant, but in the end they perpetuate social injustice.

Posted by: flip | Nov 18, 2004 4:28:35 PM

John Emerson sometimes posts under a different name and was definetly being sarcastic in his above post.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Nov 18, 2004 4:33:56 PM

Zizka doesn't "exemplify the typical conservative attitude" toward anything, Mike :^). He was being ironic.

I suppose we could try it in a few places, see how well it works using longitudinal studies, and implement it piecemeal across the education system if the bribes are a better use of money than hiring new teachers and refurbishing classrooms and such at the margin. Obviously, we can't give every student $2,000 for an A, because we'd have to drastically cut other bits of education. I don't see why we can't try it in a few schools, though. Of course, this'll mean using students as guinea pigs for social experiments, but if the only alternatives are either implementing it as simultaneously without knowing the results or not trying it at all, I think using a limited population as guinea pigs isn't that bad an idea. I don't really think this is anything to get worked up about on first principles ("Economic incentives must work! How couldn't they?" "No! Learning must be intrinsically motivated!"). See how it works, how big the bribes should be if they should exist at all, etc, and spread it around a bit if it works.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Nov 18, 2004 4:47:29 PM

You are so wrong on this, I don't even know where to begin.

Posted by: Mitch Schindler | Nov 18, 2004 5:04:24 PM

From a social democratic perspective, isn't the problem that the contemporary economy rewards kids who do well in school too much and kids who have other talents are relegated to minimum wage no-health-insurance crappy jobs?

If a kid is susceptible to medium-term pecuniary incentives, they will try to do well in school. If they aren't doing well, then they either don't have the native ability (in which case, this society is already too cruel to them) or they have typically adolescent discounted time-horizons. Which is a reasonable supposition. But is bribery really the best way to deal with this?

Posted by: Gareth | Nov 18, 2004 5:27:42 PM

I wonder what sort of effect nepotism and other such practices have on the incentive to learn. In college, at times, I saw a number of people engaged in practices that were not exactly academically honest, to say the least. Sometimes, these classes were related to their major, and other times, they were not. At the same time, I heard them talking about someone who was going to hook them up with a job, someone who got a job because he knew someone, or something like that.

I don't think it has an overwhelming effect on the employment situation. Additionally, I don't think there's necessarily anything awful with nepotism. Nor do I think we can do anything to prevent it.

I'm just curious, is all.

Posted by: Brian | Nov 18, 2004 6:08:05 PM

And when kids are getting held up after school for their $20/A check? I just don't see how you don't make kids and schools targets, especially in Marginal Revolution's example. How do you keep less than upstanding parents from taking the money as well?

The unintended bad consequences of what is defintely a noble goal should ensure a lot more thought on this matter before we rush test programs into the field.

Posted by: Publius Rex | Nov 18, 2004 7:02:35 PM

After looking at Kohn online articles and admittedly not reading the book, I think his research or the research he cites does not support all the lessons he takes from it. He is write to say that workers in well-paid satisfying job with good feedback from peers and employer don't need incentives.

A short personal practical observation. I have a teenage son who has been living on the street or in group homes (drugs, metal, anarchist ideations) who has entered a job training program. The idea of getting paid $50 a week in cash to show up for class and complete assignments with a bonus for non-tardy attendance seems to motivate several changes in his behaviour. On the other hand the structure of the reward makes a difference. There is a $25 weekly bonus for being on time for everything. Once he blows that it gets easy to cut classes because he is only losing an extra $4 per hour. Interesting economics.

Posted by: Tony Dalmyn | Nov 18, 2004 8:00:43 PM

Please excuse homonym right/write as other typos in foregoing comment. I must have the same tuping tytor disorder as Matt.

Posted by: Tony Dalmyn | Nov 18, 2004 8:04:15 PM

Why not pay kids for good grades. After all, this is a capitalist society motivated by the acquisition of wealth. Why should kids be left out.

Anecdotal support: We paid our daughter for good grades - including extra money for A's, more for A+'s, more for AP classed, and extra for collage classes. It worked. She had a 4.0+ GPA in high school, with no grade lower than an A. She got her AA degree from the local junior college at the same time she graduated from high school, and now she's a 20-year-old senior at Berkeley (and a good progressive Democrat). Your mileage may vary.


Posted by: aaron aardvark | Nov 18, 2004 8:25:55 PM

I'm not sure exactly how I feel about this idea, but I can imagine one possible problem with it.

You know how they say that things like a tax credit (essentially, any sort of negative income tax) produces a disincentive to work and get ahead, thus moving into a higher income category? Well, wouldn't something similar apply here?

Let's say that parents pay a children $50 for an A. Well, fine. But after a while, wouldn't that become less and less valuable as time went on, and then, we would need something new and better as an incentive to get kids to get good grades?

Posted by: Brian | Nov 18, 2004 11:26:48 PM

Uhmmm, actually I never read your post, but throw a couple bucks my way and I promise I will get to it.

Posted by: Jim G | Nov 18, 2004 11:29:17 PM

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