Payment for success a subpar learning tool


Many school districts across the country, including ones in Washington, D.C., New York, Texas and soon Illinois, have begun an educational experiment. The experiment is designed to pay children for success in behavior, academics and attendance. Each student has the potential to leave school with hundreds of dollars. The goal of the research is to encourage success.

All the schools participating in the experiments are located in high-poverty areas and are already failing institutions. This fact seems to have provided economists like Kirabo Jackson of Cornell University with a false sense of righteousness that the experiment is meaningful reform for those in need.

In a New York Times article, Jackson said, “[Disadvantaged students] may work a little harder and may find that they aren’t so bad at [school]. And they may learn study methods that last over time.”

Still, the possibility that disadvantaged students might learn some good study habits does not outweigh the negative effects extrinsic rewards have on students.

All students struggle to balance pressure. Now, imagine you are a student who comes from a home with little money and are being paid for your success. The pressure must be inconceivably great.

In Washington, D.C., 14 public schools are taking part in an experiment called Capital Gains. Capital Gains is financed by SunTrust Bank, Borders and the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University. An interest account is created for each participating student at SunTrust Bank. Then checks are deposited in their accounts as a reward for good grades, attendance and behavior.

For decades, educational psychologists have warned that extrinsic rewards can undermine learning. Yet, in the Times article, economist Roland Fryer of Harvard said, “We have to get beyond our biases … and let the data do the talking.”

If you let the data do the talking, you will find that research demonstrates that rewards work in the short term but have damaging effects on students in the long term.

One of the first research studies on this subject was conducted in 1971 by Edward L. Deci, a psychologist at the University of Rochester. Deci reported that when extrinsic incentives stopped, students showed less interest in a task than those who received no reward.

Barbara Marinak, assistant professor of education at Penn State, and Linda B. Gambrell, professor of education at Clemson University, published a recent study in the academic journal Literacy Research and Instruction journal that indicated that rewarding third-graders with small prizes actually cut down on the amount of time they spent reading.

School districts must look in the mirror and recognize the burden financial incentives can cause disadvantaged students. School districts must not be misled by economists and business people who claim they have the answers to educational reform. If we are to solve the issues facing America’s children, we must stand by research.

Rather than using millions of dollars to kill the desire to learn, we could be providing disadvantaged districts with funds to recruit qualified teachers, which is even more vital for the disadvantaged schools in our nation’s capital.