Pay for performance, the flip side

On paying kids for school performance:

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.

A few thoughts:

  1. While the concerns about overjustification effect are valid, I do not believe it is an inherently awful idea to pay kids for school. How many adults would work the job they have if they didn’t need a paycheck?

  2. This is the most important part of the article:

    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.

    I completely agree.

  3. Rewarding specific behaviors immediately (e.g., read a book, get $2) instead of rewarding a grand result later (do well on the high-stakes test, get a windfall) seems completely consistent with everything we know about behavior reinforcement.
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About Spherical Cow
I'm a trained cognitive scientist and education researcher currently working for an education non-profit. In my job, I translate findings from education research into classroom practice and observe and evaluate the results. I also help non-scientists understand what we can and cannot conclude from different data sets. I hope that increased awareness of quality research will improve the discourse and policymaking in education.

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