June 9, 2007

"My kids need incentives to do really well, and they're not privy to some of the finer things that other kids are."

Said a middle school teacher in the South Bronx, who supports Mayor Bloomberg's plan to pay cash rewards to students for getting good grades. (Note that it's privately raised money, not tax money.)

Do you approve of using cash incentives to get kids to work? Does it teach them the wrong thing -- merging grade grubbing with money grubbing -- or exactly the right thing? Isn't it absurd that we expect kids to study for the sheer love of learning or to achieve goals that are very far in the future when most of us don't behave like that -- and we're adults, with better impulse control?

Cash incentives for studying have at least three distinct benefits: 1. Kids learn the material they've been motivated to study, 2. Kids learn the life lesson that by doing good work you can get money, and 3. Once they have money, kids have a chance to learn how to handle money sensibly. Re #3:
Maryann Manzolillo of Intermediate School 162 in the Bronx said she would put the incentives in school-based bank accounts, then use them to teach kids about managing money.
Re #1:
Now, she said, attendance is low on interim-testing days. "Children say, 'Oh, it's a practice test. It doesn't count,'" she said. "Money makes everything really count."

Some teachers and parents yesterday applauded the idea of motivating kids, but others, including Tina Pack, a mother of eight who lives in public housing on the upper East Side, had reservations.

"In my mind, kids will cram to do better on a test, but what knowledge will they gain?" she said. "I never say if you get an A on a test I'll give you a reward.... What if maybe you're working really hard and you get a B? I'm trying to reward the learning."
Of course, I wish Ms. Pack well as she does what she thinks is best trying to raise 8 children. I hope she is able to motivate all those kids to study effectively and to learn in some deep way that transcends grade grubbing. But I have some issues with her statement.

First, the word "cram." People who want to excuse the failure to study are always using the word "cram" to characterize what other people do. They're just cramming, so it's not real learning. They'll learn just what they need for the test, for only as long as they need it for the test, and then it will all be forgotten. But does this attitude lead to a better way of studying or just hopelessness about ever learning anything?

It's just a reality that we forget much of what we learn (or store it in a way that leaves us incapable of retrieving it at will). I used to study for exams in law school to the point where I could mentally visualize my entire outline and find whatever I needed to write my answers. It might be handy if I could still refer to those outlines in my head, but if I had the chance to magically cause all the notes I ever studied to become mentally visible like a law school outline on the day of an exam, I would decline. If I had that power, I would not be a human being, as I understand what it means to be human.

Studying for exams is worthwhile, and the failure to remember everything doesn't mean you "crammed" just for the sake of the test. You went through a process that transformed your mind and part of the transformation is moving beyond the point where the information is fully readable.

Second, Ms. Pack worries about paying kids based on the result rather than the effort: "What if maybe you're working really hard and you get a B?" She then says "I'm trying to reward the learning," which suggests that the results of the test are less indicative of learning than the effort you put in. But people often work very hard at something and do it poorly. And, similarly, you might find an efficient way to get something done well in very little time. Why teach kids that the ideal is to slog away laboriously? A test is a good way to check how effectively you are working. The time you spent leaning over the book is not.

Now, obviously, there's the problem of some kids having more aptitude. Bob reads something once and can ace the test and get $10, while Joe has to go over and over it to ace the test and get his $10. Or maybe he'll only get a B and $5. Well, there's a lesson in that, but do you think it's a lesson we should protect children from learning? Maybe not. If Joe and Bob played a sport, and Bob had greater aptitude, wouldn't we think it was good if Joe saw that and felt motivated to train very hard so next time he could win -- or just make a better showing for himself?

Kids know there are different aptitudes. Efforts to hide this are ineffective and patronizing. Offering cash prizes for achievement can be a way to externalize and thus make less of a big deal out of these differences. It might be better if academic work felt more like a sport.


Meade said...

"It might be better if academic work felt more like a sport."

I think it would. And while were at it, we should share with the student athletes some of the income generated from school spectator sports.

George said...

"A factory work shift is typically 12 hours, usually with two breaks for meals (subsidized or free), six or seven days per week. Whenever the action lets up—if the assembly line is down for some reason, if a worker has spare time at a meal break—many people place their heads down on the table in front of them and appear to fall asleep instantly. Chinese law says that the standard workweek is 40 hours, so this means a lot of overtime, which is included in the pay rates above....

“The people here work hard,” an American manager in a U.S.-owned plant told me. “They’re young. They’re quick. There’s none of this ‘I have to go pick up the kids’ nonsense you get in the States.”

.....At 8 a.m. in Shenzhen, the young women on the night shift got up from the assembly line, took off the hats and hairnets they had been wearing, and shook out their dark hair. They passed through the metal detector at the door to their workroom (they pass through it going in and coming out) and walked downstairs to the racks where they had left their bikes. They wore red company jackets, as part of their working uniform—and, as an informal uniform, virtually every one wore tight, low-rise blue jeans with embroidery or sequins on the seams. Most of them rode their bikes back to the dormitory; others walked, or walked their bikes, chatting with each other. That evening they would be back at work. Meanwhile, flocks of red-topped, blue-bottomed young women on the day shift filled the road, riding their bikes in."

From the James Fallows cover story in this month's Atlantic.

Gahrie said...

Rather than use extrinsic motivators to encourage performance, it would be a better idea to have their parents and community instill some intrinsic motivators in the children.

AJ Lynch said...

I don't know - look what money and the finer things did to Paris Hilton.

It would be interesting to pose your question to those 9 SCOTUS judges. Let's hear what they they think about this idea cause I suspect most of them lacked the finer things too.

Bloomberg may mean well but when you have bad parents in the kid's equation, you can't just erase that factor out by throwing money at it.

It is time to recognize we can't save everyone.

Terri said...

I read so much about "failing schools", and how it's all about bad teachers and not enough money.

I want to know why we don't hear about "failing" parents and communities? Children are in school for a much smaller percentage of their days than they are at home. Money isn't the answer. And instant gratification isn't a good way to teach hard work for long-term success.

Eva said...

"Isn't it absurd that we expect kids to study for the sheer love of learning or to achieve goals that are very far in the future when most of us don't behave like that -- and we're adults, with better impulse control?"

Actually, I don't think it is absurd. Doing what you are passionate about, rather than what just pays the bucks is a great way to be happy, and probably successful. The problem is that only pursuits that reward materially are considered worthwhile. The kid that loves to draw or play music is generally thought to be wasting their time compared to the kid that makes just makes good grades. I don't have any children (and as such am a wealth of great parenting advice) but I don't get why neither kids or parents seem to appreciate the value of the journey of learning and education, but only seem to value the report card.

(Experimenting with delurking for the first time in 4 years!)

ricpic said...

Education* is only for the few with a genuine love of learning.

*Education as a privilege; not as an industry.

Tim said...

I'm all for the free market, pay for performance, capitalism, etc.

But this is nonsense, no matter the funds would be privately contributed.

It's not just about money. Education is already oversold as an economic good ("...we've got to fix our schools to compete the the global economy...") instead of an intrinsic good (an informed citizenry able to govern itself in a democratic republic). That isn't to disclaim the obvious economic virtues of education, rather that kids need to learn so they might be functional citizens when they mature. The nation is more (or damned well better be) than its economy.

Let parents provide the direct, immediate incentives; let life in society provide the consequences, good and bad, for success and failure - across the board. Too many in the educational system, starting with the teacher unions, are not held to account for failure. And yes, there are also inattentive, disinterested parents, self-serving school administrators, and school boards and legislatures in the thrall of campaign contributions from teacher unions making matters worse.

Which is one reason my kids go to parochial school.

TMink said...

My daughter gets cash for good grades and pays me for bad ones. School is her job, and I want her to understand that hard work and excellent achievement is still rewarded in some circles.


PatCA said...

My father paid us for good grades in grade school, and it worked. If it hadn't been for the promise of those crisp dollar bills awaiting us on report card day, we would have done the minimum and played volleyball all day instead of study.

I think many of you are expecting adult sensibilities from these children. Kids who haven't "found their passion" yet at the ripe old age of 10, or who have difficult or absent parents, need an incentive. I think it's a great idea.

blake said...

I look forward to the first scandal involving teachers giving students good grades in exchange for a cut.

You know it's going to happen.

A lot.

And will be pointed to as proof that our teachers are not paid enough.

Emy L. Nosti said...

Sports? Winning awards was fun, but not once did I attend practice every night after school or step on to the court for a plastic trophy. I agree with Gahrie. Extrinsic rewards, if I recall correctly, are fleeting and don’t make for good long-term motivators.

On the other hand, I think the whole grading system works against making learning intrinsically rewarding, because it’s forced learning out of fear of poor grades (at least it was for me). Fear is also an extremely poor motivator in the long run. That is why I love to learn on my own but absolutely hated school--my imposed worth was based on how good of a knowledge receptacle/regurgitator I was. Anyway, I might not have hated school so much if I was paid to go, but I doubt I would’ve studied harder or learned more.

Then again, millions of people still hate the jobs they're paid to do. (Speaking of which, if we do start paying for grades, we should pay girls less so they learn how penises improve the value of an otherwise equivalent output. It'd be patronizing to mislead them!)

blake said...

Item #4,176,232 on "Why I'm glad I don't send my kids to school.

I think you're half wrong, PatCA: Most kids haven't found a single passion at ten. They have many passions. School is not designed to cater to that.

The problem is not getting kids excited about learning, it's about forcing kids to learn a subset of all human knowledge that someone, somewhere has decided must be learned.

blake said...

By the way, useful education has extrinsic value.

Like...a birdhouse, a painting, a song you know how to sing or play, the ability to build or fix something, whether it be a toilet, a flat tire, or a computer program, etc.

I had a professor who maintained that his (and his colleague's) purpose was to give us enough information to chat at a cocktail party. Not all his fellow teachers agreed with that, but even that is an extrinsic value--but if and only if it's a subject you have an interest in discussing. (Or you're interested in the person who's interested in discussing it.)

It's the fiction thing again, only instead of individual teachers deciding what's important in the world of make-believe, it's the schools deciding which arbitrary bits of information are important.

Terri said...

I have a different idea. Why not provide financial incentives to people without respect for education NOT to have children in the first place. I'm not talking about all uneducated people. I am talking about people who see no value in education. There is a difference. Pay them not to have children who will follow their example.

Role models are important and cultivate a child's attitude toward school. More than financial incentive. Just my opinion.

Oligonicella said...

Interesting. My daughter did fine. Smart woman, loves to read, recently got a further degree, starts teaching this year with desire to become a principal.

Never paid her a dime.

Got good grades too.

P. Rich said...

Explicit reward for achievement is a massive improvement over artificially inflated "self-esteem" coupled with the message that trying is just as important as doing, or that mere existence carries with it entitlement to respect.

Revenant said...

It sounds like a pretty good idea to me, so long as the money is provided by the private sector. Teaching kids "if you do well in school, you'll earn more money" is a useful lesson.

Mind you, I don't have kids. But paying them for good grades strikes me as an excellent investment -- the better their grades, the better their chances of earning scholarships, and the less money you end up shelling out for college later on. Plus, of course, they'll probably end up earning more money and be better-able to care for you in your old age.

Revenant said...

Why not provide financial incentives to people without respect for education NOT to have children in the first place.

Because the flip side to that is NOT providing money to irresponsible people who DO have kids. We'd be up to our asses in whiny liberals and media exposes on how the government is "slashing benefits for needy children".

Terri said...

We'd be up to our asses in whiny liberals and media exposes on how the government is "slashing benefits for needy children".

And that would be new in what way?

Daryl said...

Monetary incentives might also defuse ethnic stereotypes. A black kid who is accused of working hard in school because he wants to "act white" can say that he's working for cash to spend on authentic black youth culture consumer goods, not to please massa.

He would have to get more than a purely symbolic amount of money, of course. $10 isn't going to cut it, unless that's for a weekly quiz.

Kathy said...

Somehow I suspect that, in the long run, this is not going to solve whatever the problem is that we're trying to solve. Is the problem that students are not motivated to succeed? Succeed in class, in their grades, or on standardized tests? My guess is it's the tests that are the issue here, although I didn't go read the article to verify that. Students don't care about the tests because they don't impact the students' lives in a meaningful way. So monetary rewards might change that, but preparing for such a test is not a quick and easy matter. The tests are supposed to measure long-term progress in a range of areas. So incentives would need to address long-term preparation in a range of areas, meaning you'd have to pay money along the way.

But what if the preparation steps are not actually successful in teaching the students what they need to know in order to do well on the tests? Then all your payments for prior performance may not net you positive results on the test.

I guess I am just suggesting that students may be unmotivated in part because their work is meaningless and empty, generally speaking. They may be unmotivated because all their prior training at home and in school has not taught them to value learning. They may be unmotivated because within their peer group school success is not associated with life success. There may be lots of reasons why the students do not care or appear not to care about their school performance, and I'm not sure monetary rewards will address those effectively.

I suspect that implementing a richer, more meaningful, and more challenging curriculum might go a long way toward remedying the problem, but I know full well that is not going to happen.

amba said...

There was a story a little while back that said kids who had been given a lesson on neuroplasticity learned better. It made them realize in a vivid way that effort would pay off.

It seems important especially for the less facile, flashy kids to realize that "WORK works." What the rewards are may be less important than the conviction and experience that one CAN earn them with effort. It isn't just a matter of talent or self-esteem.

If you're not one of the kids who can ace everything with your eyes closed and one hand behind your back, you need a reason not to feel hopeless. And even if you ARE one of those kids -- I know this becaue I was -- you're going to feel like a fraud if you always just phone in your A's. Rewards (money, praise, grades) earned by effort are actually sweeter. Sweat sweetens!

XWL said...

Why not have the state intrude even deeper and deeper into the "parent function" their legal guardians are supposed to provide?

If parents were doing their jobs, the state wouldn't feel compelled to do their jobs for them.

Just go ahead and start building state run chreches, force folks not willing to buy their way out of the creche system (at a substantial low six figures annual rate let's say) to give up their little burdens (allow the parents visitation a few times a year, and maybe even allow the better parents to take their own children on occaisonal short outings with pre-approved itineraries).

I'm sure the NYC public school system could be ten times more effective if the parents were cut out of the picture entirely.

There'd be no violence, no obesity, no anti-Gaiaism, and definitely no socially conservative Republicans.

NYC would be paradise on Earth.

Bloomberg could make it happen, he should make it happen.

(there was more, but I overloaded the snark center of my noggin, will have to allow for a refractory period before continuing on, sorry for the inconvenience)

Gahrie said...

Why not provide financial incentives to people without respect for education NOT to have children in the first place.... I am talking about people who see no value in education.

At the risk of being labeled a racist, this nicely dovetails into another problem currently on the frontburner.

The majority of those illegal immigrants that some are so eager to make citizens do not value education. Look up the education statistics for Mexico some time. The vast majority of illegal immigrants are ignorant peasants, and they have no problem with their children remaining the same. For the most part the idea of their children living a higher standard of life than them is foriegn to them.

At parent teacher conferences I have had parents tell me that "I only went to school until the third grade, and I'm doing OK." Many of them regularly take their children out of school for weeks at a time to visit relatives in Mexico.

I've had students for two years straight, who get straight "F"s. Not only have the parents never contacted me, I can't contact the parents because the phone numbers and addresses they gace the school no longer work, if they ever did.

Gahrie said...

That is why I love to learn on my own but absolutely hated school--

Modern education is industrialized and one-size-fits-all. It is not nearly the optimal method. The optimal method would be Socratic...a teacher with five or six kids sitting out in a field somewhere. However that is not viable. The current system has worked in the past however.

The difference is, education is no longer seen as an escape or route to a better life. The life that most children (including all but the most truly poor) is entirely satisfactory in every way. No hard labor, expensive clothes, plenty of bling and $100 shoes, the latest game system, cell phones and a Myspace page.

I work in a school in which 75% of the students are entitled to a free lunch and breakfast (which most eschew in favor of red hot cheetos, pizza and cheesy fries). I teach the 8th grade this year (12-14 year olds). Most of them have cell phones, and not the cheap ones...the expensive razors with texting and cameras. They are wearing $100 shoes (and spend valuable class time shining/cleaning them if allowed) and gold chains. They do virtually no homework, and suffer no apparent consequences (beyond failing grades for which they also receive no consequences).

TMink said...

Kathy wrote: "I suspect that implementing a richer, more meaningful, and more challenging curriculum might go a long way toward remedying the problem"

I think that would help the children who are bored and value learning, but I am skeptical that it would help the children who do not value academic learning in the first place. I blame us, as parents.


Revenant said...

Why not have the state intrude even deeper and deeper into the "parent function" their legal guardians are supposed to provide?

Isn't this program privately funded?