[On Fryer's plan to experiment with paying students for performance] The most damning criticism of Fryer came from psychologists like the University of Rochester's Edward Deci, who has spent his career studying motivation. Deci has found that money — like other tangible rewards — does not work very well to motivate people over the long term, particularly for tasks that involve creativity. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that rewards can have the perverse effect of making people perform worse.
A classic experiment in support of this hypothesis took place at a nursery school at Stanford University in the early 1970s. There, researchers divided 51 toddlers into groups. All the kids were asked to draw a picture with markers. But one group was told in advance that they would get a special reward — a certificate with a gold star and a red ribbon — in exchange for their work. The kids did the drawings, and the ones in the treatment group got their certificates.
A few weeks later, the researchers observed the children through a one-way mirror on a normal school day. They found that the kids who had received the award spent half as much time drawing for fun as those who had not been rewarded. The reward, it seemed, diminished the act of drawing. So instead of giving kids gold stars, Deci says, we should teach them to derive intrinsic pleasure from the task itself.... 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....
In the fall of 2007, the New York City experiment began... they sketched out a plan to pay kids $50 for each A, $35 for a B and $20 for a C, up to $2,000 a year. But half of their earnings would be set aside in an account, to be redeemed only upon high school graduation.
In Washington, middle schoolers would be paid for a portfolio of five different metrics, including attendance and good behavior. If they hit perfect marks in every category, they could make $100 every two weeks. Schools in Dallas got the simplest scheme and the one targeting the youngest children: every time second-graders read a book and successfully completed a computerized quiz about it, they earned $2. Straightforward — and cheap. The average earning would turn out to be about $14 (for seven books read) per year...
In New York City, the $1.5 million paid to 8,320 kids for good test scores did not work — at least not in any way that's easy to measure. In Chicago, under a different model, the kids who earned money for grades attended class more often and got better grades, two major accomplishments. Those students did not, however, do better on their standardized tests at the end of the year.
In Washington, the kids did better on standardized reading tests. Getting paid on a routine basis for a series of small accomplishments, including attendance and behavior, seemed to lead to more learning for those kids. And in Dallas, the experiment produced the most dramatic gains of all. Paying second-graders to read books significantly boosted their reading-comprehension scores on standardized tests at the end of the year — and those kids seemed to continue to do better the next year, even after the rewards stopped.
why did the results vary so dramatically from city to city?
One clue came out of the interviews Fryer's team conducted with students in New York City. The students were universally excited about the money, and they wanted to earn more. They just didn't seem to know how. When researchers asked them how they could raise their scores, the kids mentioned test-taking strategies like reading the questions more carefully. But they didn't talk about the substantive work that leads to learning. "No one said they were going to stay after class and talk to the teacher," Fryer says. "Not one."
We tend to assume that kids (and adults) know how to achieve success. If they don't get there, it's for lack of effort — or talent. Sometimes that's true. But a lot of the time, people are just flying blind. John List, an economist at the University of Chicago, has noticed the disconnect in his own education experiments. He explains the problem to me this way: "I could ask you to solve a third-order linear partial differential equation," he says. "A what?" I ask. "A third-order linear partial differential equation," he says. "I could offer you a million dollars to solve it. And you can't do it." (He's right. I can't.) For some kids, doing better on a geometry test is like solving a third-order linear partial differential equation, no matter the incentive.
Similarly, in Chicago, kids were paid for grades — a result they could not always control. There, the findings were mixed. Kids who got paid did indeed get better grades, and they also attended class more — a week and a half more over the school year. That is a big deal, since nearly half of Chicago's high school kids drop out before they graduate and the kids who skip school and fail courses as freshmen tend to be the ones who drop out. We won't know until 2012 if the experiment lowered the dropout rate, but we do know that the rewards did not raise standardized-test scores.
So what happens if we pay kids to do tasks they know how to do? In Dallas, paying kids to read books — something almost all of them can do — made a big difference. In fact, the experiment had as big or bigger an effect on learning as many other reforms that have been tested, like lowering class size or enrolling kids in Head Start early-education programs (both of which cost thousands of dollars more per student). And the experiment also boosted kids' grades. "If you pay a kid to read books, their grades go up higher than if you actually pay a kid for grades, like we did in Chicago," Fryer says. "Isn't that cool?"
Kids may respond better to rewards for specific actions because there is less risk of failure. They can control their attendance; they cannot necessarily control their test scores. The key, then, may be to teach kids to control more overall — to encourage them to act as if they can indeed control everything, and reward that effort above and beyond the actual outcome.