Carrots don’t work when you don’t have arms to grab them

I’m still puzzling over Amanda Ripley’s Time Magazine cover story on bribing kids to do well in school. Three of the four cities (New York, Dallas, Chicago) where Harvard economist Roland Fryer led massive experiments on paying students are winding down, with little positive data to get excited about. The results are worth investigating not just for their impact on student rewards, but for what light they shed on performance incentives for adults as well.









The bright spot for Fryer’s experiments was Washington, D.C., where many hard-to-reach students showed gains on tests, although Ripley tempers the jubilation:

When I talked with Washington students, teachers and principals about the experiment, they appeared to have very low expectations for its long-term impact. Many of them, speaking from experience, seemed to think that nothing as simple as money could reach a certain hard core of kids. “The children we had challenges with before, we still have challenges with,” says Vealetta Moore-Parker, a guidance counselor who runs the incentives program at Burroughs Education Campus.

Kids love money, but the dangling carrot of a paycheck didn’t produce sustainable progress. Here’s a major reason:

The [New York City] 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.”

I’m not ideologically against rewards, but the above paragraph ought to sound an alarm against rewarding superficial accomplishments— like upwards-inching high-stakes test scores. It’s the skills and strategies for learning and self-improving that kids lack. Those soft skills (forming relationships with your teachers, how to study, how to use the Internet as an educational resource) and good habits (reading, reading, reading, completing assignments thoroughly and on time, reading) are the keys to the kingdom.

Ripley explains this gap well:

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.

Kids need tutoring, not dangling carrots. In public school classrooms where educators are under unprecedented pressure to produce high scores on high-stakes exams, there are ever-diminishing opportunities for struggling students to get the kind of support they need to catch up. Offering them cash for a great test score is like offering Amanda Ripley a million dollars to solve the third-order linear partial differential equation. Fuggetabatit.

I see a parallel here with the unstoppably popular idea of teacher “pay for performance.” The underlying idea is that teachers just aren’t trying hard enough and that a financial incentive will motivate them to get more out of their students. This is a flawed premise. Certainly there are some lazy teachers, but it is not a critical mass of teachers not trying their hardest that is ailing American education. Most teachers work their hearts out under oppressive bureaucratic mandates, unending paperwork, heavy teaching loads, and less-than-ideally resourced classrooms. They’ll take the much-needed money, but it’s not going to coax teachers into becoming stars; rather, it will shape behavior to deliver whatever statistic the reward-dispensers crave.

Paying kids to read isn’t a bad idea because it builds skills that students can use for a lifetime. Paying kids for test scores is a waste because those scores are reductive and not adequately representative of the whole child’s abilities.

We should consider paying teachers the same way: incentivizing self-improving behavior like professional development, taking leadership roles in the school, eliciting comprehensive portfolios of quality student work, and staying away from paying for fleeting, superficial indicators.