Learning, Innovation & Tech

Bombs & Breakthroughs

Should Kids Be Paid (Bribed) For Good Grades?

CJ Westerberg, October 13, 2011 9:02 AM


Pub. April 2010

Death Threats, A Time Cover Story &
Morning Joe Debate (With Surprising Conclusions From Scarborough)

Stephen Colbert Interviews Harvard Professor
In Amusing Video (
See Below)

When I first came across Time's cover story about paying students for grades, I first thought, "Oh, great.  Our kids have no desire to learn, so we have to pay them?   Maybe it's what's happening in the classroom and at home that kids don't want to learn . . ."

Well, then I remembered my parents paid ME and I was humbled by my initial knee-jerk  reaction.  That's right -  they paid me 50 cents for an A and 25 cents for a B.   Was that what motivated me?  I really don't think so. . . or in fact, I know so.   That was more of a bonus. I actually think being allowed to stay up to watch "Bewitched" or an ice-cream sundae (Jamie Oliver would not like this) were stronger motivations.

But they still counted as bribery. 

Then I recalled one of the techniques used by Rafe Esquith, a past Teacher of the Year and Oprah honor recipient, in the fabulous documentary, The Hobart Shakespeareans, and it was unequivocally a form of bribery:  good performance/behavior gave his middle school students "dollars" that could be used to buy real coveted items, such as a guitar, at "auction".  It not only worked as an incentive but taught kids the value of how quickly money can go and to learn the value of delayed gratification.  (I highly recommend this documentary to parents and teachers).

From the Time article, here in a nutshell is the sense of ire from parents and educators about paying kids to learn:

" . . .I have not met a child who does not admire this trend. But it makes adults profoundly uncomfortable. Teachers complain that we are rewarding kids for doing what they should be doing of their own volition. Psychologists warn that money can actually make kids perform worse by cheapening the act of learning. Parents predict widespread slacking after the incentives go away. And at least one think-tank scholar has denounced the strategy as racist. The debate has become a proxy battle for the larger war over why our kids are not learning at the rate they should be despite decades of reforms and budget increases. . . "

Enter Roland Fryer

Roland Fryer, an economics professor at Harvard, who has been a notable advocate and remarkable leader in this research, has also received significant brutal criticism and even death threats from his work in this area, stated in this piece:

 "I totally underestimated how pissed off people would be because of this," he says. "This is exactly the kind of R&D education needs. I never said it was going to solve all education problems. I just thought it deserved to be tested."

Turns out Fryer's studies, while producing initial mixed results, have found a key consistency in positive impact and outcomes when the rewards go to actual behaviors and specific actions - such as being in school on time or reading a book - - as opposed to money for grades, which is much less concrete and immediate.  Here are the money quotes (pun intended):

" . . .Recognition, like punishment, works best if it happens quickly. . . "
" . . .Just like grownups, kids need different kinds of incentives to get through the day, some highbrow and some low, some short-term, some longer-term. And money and other external rewards can be a gateway to more substantive motivators. KIPP fifth-graders get a lot of prizes like pencils; high school kids can earn freedoms -- like the privilege of listening to their iPods at lunch. "Our ultimate goal is to get kids to be intrinsically motivated," says Joshua Zoia, who founded the KIPP Academy in Lynn, Mass. "But we have to get kids hooked in. We have to meet them where they are."

". . .Fryer believes there's more good research to be done on incentives. But he doesn't think incentives alone can fix our schools; he is increasingly convinced that the answer will involve a combination of reforms and that the interaction among those reforms will matter more than any single change in isolation. And whatever we do, he says, we have to test it first -- and fearlessly. "One thing we cannot do is, pay their kids every week. (Interestingly, the two places Fryer's experiment worked best were the ones where kids got feedback fast -- through biweekly paychecks in Washington and through passing computerized quizzes in Dallas.) we cannot restrict ourselves to a set of solutions that make adults comfortable. . ."

What's your riff on this?  (Check out Colbert video below where 50 cents is now $50 and watch Colbert have a field day . . . )                                   

Highly recommended Time magazine article link here.
Roland Fryer also was featured on the CNN special Black In America with link here and the subject of  a NY Times Magazine bio piece here and a recent mention on the Freakonomics blog here.

In a prior post from The Daily Riff, best-selling author Daniel Pink weighs (and tosses this line of thinking on its ear)  - see link HERE.


P.S. Just came across today's lede story at The Huffington Post about the banking scams w/link HERE which sent chills up my spine by the parallel.  Much adieu about nothing, too soon to pull the trigger, or are we setting up students for the short-term mentality like we did with our obsession on test scores, another "education game" where students learn how to "beat the system"  and not really "learn"?  (Watch Colbert's questioning about copying homework in the video)

 Sound familiar?  Excerpts from Huffpo:

"The system is built to be gamed."
"The voices of dissent are not being heard."

"These are the words of an anonymous executive at one of America's 10 largest banks, who after many years of watching the worst of Wall Street's ethics transform his company, has decided to speak out.

Despite the obvious risks to his banking career, the executive, who's been in the industry for more than 20 years, says he can't bear to keep quiet any longer: "I decided that I cannot live with the extent of the compromises to my value system.""

In early April, the executive in question started the anonymous blog, The Fourteenth Banker. . . 

The executive, who currently works in a management role at a U.S. bank that took TARP funds, described the rapid dissolution of the traditional banking functions at his company in favor of short-term fixes and often exaggerated profits. . . .

 . . . ."Incentive is everything," he says of the changes. "The same sort of ethical and questions and compromises seen at investment banks have that infected the whole organization."

BELOW: Watch  Colbert video : (5 min.) and "Morning Joe" video with some surprising conclusions by Joe Scarborough (April 9, 2010) BELOW:


The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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  • ella

    maybe our scores are low compared to other countries because the US teaches at a lower level. what I mean to say is other countries expect the students to keep up with the level they are teaching at. They do not lower themselves to lower standards so all students have a better chance at succeeding. Summer breaks are much shorter. Other countries have far less homework they do the work at school not as much extra activities. Teachers are allowed to punish kids in effective manners. As for paying kids to get good grades I believe the answer is no. Lets put it this way i have 2 children one studies his ass off and can barely manage to get a C in math has a B/C average while my other kid rarely opens a book at home and comes home with all A&B's am I going to pay the A student $20 for an A and My other $5 for a C when the Child who got the C grade put in way more effort NO WAY.

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