Using Incentives to Improve Education: TIME is paying kids to do better in school

April 12, 2010 at 9:06 pm 7 comments

I found this article in TIME fascinating.  I’m surprised that they didn’t have the Nudge or Freakonomics authors comment on the story — it’s directly libertarian paternalism.

If you haven’t read it, it’s a randomized clinical study of paying kids to do better in school, across four different settings with different criteria for pay-outs.  The results (so-far — the study is on-going to get data on long-term effects and drop-out rates) are pretty much what the libertarian paternalists would predict.  Paying kids for higher grades or better test scores doesn’t work.  Kids don’t necessarily know how to achieve those goals, and the feedback may arrive too late to influence performance (e.g., test scores that arrive in the summer).  But paying kids to attend class, to read more books, to avoid fights, to not get pregnant — these things result in measurable benefits.  Kids know how to do these things, and the feedback arrives quickly. It works most of the time.  The results are still complicated, and there are additional variables that influence the results. Key is that it’s really important work to do, and someone is doing it.

But should students work for intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivations?  As the study’s author says: If it doesn’t work for adults, why should it work for kids?

In principle, Fryer agrees. “Kids should learn for the love of learning,” he says. “But they’re not. So what shall we do?” Most teenagers do not look at their math homework the way toddlers look at a blank piece of paper. It would be wonderful if they did. Maybe one day we will all approach our jobs that way. But until then, most adults work primarily for money, and in a curious way, we seem to be holding kids to a higher standard than we hold ourselves.

via Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School? — Printout — TIME.

Jan Cuny has talked about trying something similar for AP CS.  Turns out that paying AP teachers $50 for each student score of 5, and $25 to each student who gets a 3 or better, works for driving up students taking AP exams and for raising scores.  Why not try it for AP CS, too?

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Darrin Thompson  |  April 12, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    I think if you read the whole article you’ll find that your suggesting going down the path of what didn’t work.

    What did work was a little more indirect. They paid younger students a small amount for reading books.

    The researchers conclusions were nuanced. You might want to take a closer look as I think you’d be surprised. Paying the teachers for test scores puts you squarely in the realm of things they tested that largely failed.

    • 2. Darrin Thompson  |  April 12, 2010 at 9:35 pm

      Pot calls kettle…

      Ok. I didn’t read _your_ post carefully.

      Anyway, Jan Cuny is treading on thin ice by directly rewarding the test scores. It’s a long distance between behavior and outcome. One of the researchers conclusions was that incentives worked best on behaviors, not outcomes.

      I’ll shut up now. 🙂

      • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  April 12, 2010 at 9:44 pm

        You’re right — it is a long distance. An AP student is also an older and (typically) more advanced student. I like what the article said: people aren’t puppets and are pretty complicated. You have to try things. Jan has said that there are some good results for this kind of pay-for-AP incentives elsewhere (I haven’t seen the studies). Why not try it? Let’s collect the data and see.

  • 4. Aashish Kumar  |  April 13, 2010 at 4:08 am

    This will not really help to upgrade the quality of education…..It takes a lot of side effects……………….Sensitive article

  • 5. thinkingwiththings  |  April 13, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Sadly, there is not a lot of intrinsic motivation left in elementary and secondary classrooms. I thought that “teaching to the test” would stop after 10th grade when my child passed the Massachusetts standard exams for graduation (MCAS), but no. The AP classes can be just as bad–teaching to the AP test.

  • 6. Aaron Lanterman  |  April 17, 2010 at 1:09 am

    The $$$ for passing AP tests makes me nervous; following the Freakonomics theme, it might be another encouragement for both students and teachers to cheat on the tests.

    (There’s also the issue that I think standardized tests should be set on fire and their ashes thrown into the depths of the deepest ocean.)

  • 7. weilunion  |  April 17, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    Hello, this is Danny Weil from

    You might wish to go to the site, Dailycensored, find the ‘Author’s Posts’ at the top of the home page, click, find my name and cllick again and read the article I wrote called:

    Making the Grades

    This will allow you to see that not only is the insidious attempt to reduce grades to exchange value morally and practically wrong, it will also allow you to see how students are being charged for grades, yes that is right being charged for grades due to the fact their public schools are broke. It is all documented.

    Then you can see how the insidious notion of grades is being used like a rating agency for corporations as they bid for contracts to buy and sell our students in their privatization scheme. The auction needs companies that can lay the grades of their students out on a silk cloth for the authorizers to see. Grades are thus being used to seel company services, not to authentically help kids. It is the company that runs the school or the testing coproation that is being graded. Not kids.


    Danny Weil


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