I admit it.

I bribed my kid.

When nothing else seemed to work, we used a variety of stickers (mostly Thomas the Tank Engine) to encourage our two year old during potty training. And while we didn’t do a lot of scientifically-based research, it seemed to have a positive effect.

Giving kids stuff to modify their behavior is a time-honored parenting tool that’s been around forever. Schools have used similar techniques in the past but as the educational stakes have gotten higher, the “stuff” used to modify behavior has changed to include actual cash. A recent Time magazine article documents the trend:

In recent years, hundreds of schools have made these transactions more businesslike, experimenting with paying kids with cold, hard cash for showing up or getting good grades or, in at least one case, going another day without getting pregnant.

The question is does it really work? And, more specifically, can similar strategies be used to encourage long-term learning?

The Time article highlights the work of Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr. who distributed 6.3 million dollars of private funds to thousands of students in Washington, D.C., Dallas, New York and Chicago.

The results?

Like any large educational research project, the results are mixed. You can read for yourself but in one city,

the experiment had no effect at all — “as zero as zero gets.”

In another,

something remarkable happened . . . Statistically speaking, it was as if those kids had spent three extra months in school, compared with their peers who did not get paid.

Robert Marzano’s research on what works in schools discusses the concept of rewards.  At Building Better Instruction:

It is equally important to reward students for achieving specific goals. Though there are many ways to tell a student he or she has done well, recognition is most effective when it is abstract (e.g., praise) or symbolic (e.g., tokens such as coupons or stickers) and contingent on students’ attaining specific performance goals. (see Classroom Instruction That Works, pp. 73−74, for a list). 

So we have some newer Fryer research partly supporting older Marzano research. The problem some are having is that cash is not “abstract” or “symbolic.” Larry Ferlazzo of Websites for the Day is concerned about using cash rewards for certain types of learning:

As Daniel Pink and others have described and demonstrated much more ably than I can do here (see A Few Reflections On Daniel Pink’s New Book, “Drive”; On Rewards & Classroom Management; and New Study Shows That Paying Students For Higher Test Scores Doesn’t Work) extrinsic rewards do work — for mechanical work that doesn’t require much higher-order thinking. But it doesn’t work for anything that requires higher-order thinking skills and creativity. And, in fact, these incentives reduce intrinsic motivation over the long-term.

Claus von Zastrow who writes for Public School Insights agrees, remarked that Fryer’s team noted that students getting cash for scores naturally grasped at test-taking strategies rather than, say, better study skills or deeper engagement in class materials:

Students [who were asked what they could do to earn more money on the next test] started thinking about test-taking strategies rather than salient inputs into the education production function or improving their general understanding of a subject area…. Not a single student mentioned reading the textbook, studying harder, completing their homework, or asking teachers or other adults about confusing topics.

For me, it comes down to this. When all we worry about is test scores, about the short term, about meeting AYP, about meeting NVLB reqs, it seems as if paying kids for performance might be part of the answer. And I know that every school and situation is different and short term solutions may be what’s needed in some areas.

But if we want to kids to think critically, to apply content in creative ways and to be true 21st century learners, I’m still not convinced.

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