The new frontier for education reform?

This story is from another era by blog standards–almost a year ago–but I’ve been curious to see more discussion about it. Peter Orszag pointed me to this a while ago, from star economist Roland Fryer ($):

His most ambitious project, which grew out of his belief in the power of environment, is an experiment designed to see if incentives can inspire minority students to improve their grades. For all the talk about education reform, Fryer says, he feels that one party is being overlooked: the students themselves. ”I’m troubled by the fact we’re treating kids as inanimate objects,” he says. ”They have behavior, too. They respond to incentives, too.”

Fryer recently ran a pilot experiment with third graders at P.S. 70 in the Bronx. If a child achieved a certain score on her reading test or improved by a certain percentage, she got a small prize.….

[Joel] Klein asked Fryer if he might be interested in expanding his incentive experiment into 15 or so low-achieving schools. At P.S. 70, the rewards had been pizza parties or field trips. This time around, Fryer planned to give cash — $10 per good test for third graders and $20 for seventh graders.

Isn’t Fryer right about the logic of education reform? We say our public schools should incorporate incentives for excellence, much as other institutions do. NCLB has created more incentives for schools to perform. Eduwonk and others are working hard to create more incentives for teachers to perform. So isn’t this the next step–incentives for kids to perform?

The usual approach is high-stakes tests. But isn’t it also true that the prospect of being left back doesn’t provide much incentive for kids who (a) are too young to grasp all the consequences of being held back or (b) aren’t expecting to graduate in the first place? Pizza parties, gift cards, and cash could reach many more kids–and with smaller social costs than retention.

The article describes Fryer’s effort to answer questions from principals.

Fryer addressed each issue as best he could. But one question kept coming back at him: if we start paying students to test well, aren’t we sending the message that learning is not its own reward?

Playing the piano eventually becomes its own reward, but countless parents have used every kind of bribe to encourage their kids to practice more. Nothing wrong with that: The kids don’t need to love piano while they’re kids; they just need to learn it so they can love it when the time comes. And reading, unlike piano, is something kids need to learn whether they ever love it or not.

Will be very interesting to see what comes of this.


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