Bucks for Brains

Kid gives teacher an apple, teacher gives kid $50


"I think [paying kids for test scores] really undercuts the basics of what we preach in the classroom about why learning is an important thing—why it's important for its own sake," says Liam Julian, associate writer and editor at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an educational think tank. Julian, like many, is worried about New York's new plan to pay kids to learn. His idealism is understandable, but problematic in a city where about half of the black and Hispanic students don't make it to graduation. If 'learning for learning's sake' is what the schools are selling, a lot of kids aren't buying.

Harvard economist and newly appointed "chief equality officer" for the city's Department of Education Ronald G. Fryer designed the pay-to-learn plan as part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's wider anti-poverty initiative. Under Fryer's plan, kids can earn cash for performance on 10 standardized tests-five mathematics and five English exams. Each student will be paid a small amount for simply completing the test; additional money is added for high scores. Fourth graders who ace a standardized test can pocket up to $25, and seventh graders could find themselves as much as $50 richer. The program will be implemented in the fall at 80 selected schools, with half accepting the payouts and half that will be monitored as "control" groups. Fryer intends the program to narrow racial and economic achievement gaps, but all students in the 4th and 7th grades in the 40 "experimental" schools may participate. Parents will be able to opt-out of the program if they choose.

The idea is not new. In cities like Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, some kids are already profiting from academic improvement. But the New York program has attracted its share of controversy. In a July 2 New York Times op-ed column, Swarthmore psychology professor and Paradox of Choice author Barry Schwartz argues that the use of incentives could "make the learning problem worse in the long run… unless we're prepared to follow these children through life, giving them a pat on the head, or an M&M or a check every time they learn something new."

Schwartz and Julian argue that if students are paid for performance, their intrinsic love of learning will be corrupted. Both concede, however, that the students being targeted for this program already feel little or no love for school. Yet Ph.D. candidates—and professors of psychology, for that matter—get paid to learn as a matter of course, and they seem to be doing just fine.

To completely separate the idea of money from schools is in some ways noble and ideal, but doesn't reflect reality. Schools spend thousands of dollars per year per student; school systems spend millions renovate buildings for aesthetic, as well as structural, reasons; and considerable money is spent on sports programs and academic teams. More directly, the schools already provide free or reduced-price meals to many students so that growling stomachs won't prevent them from focusing enough to learn. Paying the students directly to enhance that focus is not going to warp the system or the students any more than free lunch and football already do. If anything, paying them will further prepare them for adulthood when they will be paid for their services, or—if they're lucky—receive performance-based scholarships and stipends for college.

Most public schools still don't offer teachers incentives to perform, rendering the pay-to-learn plan that much more revolutionary. Teachers are compensated for tenure, not performance, and the protections their unions provide make it very difficult for administrators to fire ineffective educators. (For all the grisly details, see John Stossel's reason illustrated guide to the New York public school bureaucracy in "How To Fire an Incompetent Teacher.")

Of course, there are still reasons to be wary of promising success for the city's experiment. Extant pay-to-learn programs, such as the KIPP schools in Washington DC and Atlanta, are at charter schools, which are not subject to the same number of bureaucratic and union obstacles that prohibit systemic change. They're flexible, and they've introduced higher standards of discipline, extended hours for teachers, and Saturday school. Julian, the Fordham Foundation writer, says that the dramatic success of these charter schools can be attributed to a "culture of achievement" that cannot be easily replicated in the traditional public system—even by the most qualified and motivated leaders. In the traditional schools, teachers' unions block attempts to force accountability or add substantively to teachers' responsibilities. The New York experiment with paying for scores assumes that the education on offer in public schools is sufficient, and that the students' lack of motivation is to blame for their own lagging achievement. But if the education itself just isn't good enough, paying kids to absorb it won't help.

In lieu of drastic systemic change in the public schools, which seems unlikely in the near future, the New York experiment with paying kids for performance has potential. Private, achievement-based, short-term, incentive payments to supplement the inadequate long-term considerations could lead to better academic results, even if the raw materials on both sides are less-than-ideal. What remains to be seen is whether or not the public school system is capable of the flexibility required to deliver the education students want and need.

Jonathan Blanks is a writer in Washington, D.C. and an intern for reason.

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