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Should Schools Pay Kids To Perform?

511298198_773b196368_mWhat if, instead of a gold star on a sticker chart, your child’s came home with a paycheck for her good grades?

Schools have been experimenting haphazardly with cash incentives for over a decade. Recently, a Harvard economist decided to put the question to the test. Roland Fryer launched a year-long program to pay students for a variety of desired behaviors in school, and got startling results.

The program ran in four cities, with students being grouped into either control groups or experimental groups. It’s one of the largest scientific studies ever done on an educational reform. Over 18,000 students were involved in the experiment.

Students in New York were paid for good test scores. Students in Chicago earned money for their grades. In Washington, kids collected cash for attendance, grades, tests and behavior. In Dallas, very young students were paid for reading books.

Only the Dallas students did dramatically better on year-end standardized tests. But they did much better. Compared to their unpaid peers, they scored as if they’d been in school for several extra months. Certain demographics of the Washington students also got a big boost to their year-end test scores.

The Chicago students got higher grades and attended class more frequently. In a few years, they’ll all have finished school and we’ll know whether or not being paid for grades lowered the drop out rate. But it did almost nothing to improve test scores.

Similarly, the New York students who were directly paid for high test scores were unable to improve their scores. They seemed confused about how, as if the outcome of a test were entirely beyond their control.

The study was popular with kids, but caused a lot of discomfort in adults. To put it mildly. While he was enrolling schools to participate, Fryer was repeatedly kicked out of schools. When the study got going and started getting some press, he started getting death threats.

Fryer persisted because he was fascinated by an education reform that deals directly with students, instead of tweaking teachers or curriculum.

The resistance from adults seems to be mostly a fondly held belief that kids should learn for the love of learning, not because they’re being paid to do it.

Some of the kids I went to school with got paid for their grades. Their parents would dole out $5 or $10 for each A, and a fat $20 for making honor roll. Not my mom. No matter how many honor roll cards I brought home, all I ever got was a big hug and a sincere, “I’m proud of you.”

Partly, this may have been because my mom didn’t exactly have a lot of money to throw around. But she also believed I should do well in school because it was The Right Thing To Do.

I’ve grown up to share that belief, which is why I’m one of the many adults whose skin crawls at the notion of paying students for good grades and test scores.

I may just have to get used to this idea, though. Under certain circumstances, it works. Like recess coaches, it may just be an ugly idea whose time has come. The kids who benefited from it got more help for less money than most popular education reform movements.

What do you think? Would you like your child’s school to pay him for good grades and attendance, or should schoolwork be a higher calling than paid labor?

Photo: theritters

More by Sierra Black:

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