October 21, 2008

Incenting Students

First of all, the verb "incent." I heard it first last week and I became infatuated. It's obnoxious, callous, bastardized, and artificial. The English language molded into plastic, the thick, stiff kind of plastic used to print credit cards. It's awful, in the same way that salt and vinegar potato chips are -- putrid and sour, and you can't stop eating them once you stop. Same thing with "incent."

Anyway, The Wife turned me on to a story on NPR I missed today because I was listening to a barely-understood lecture on CD. But it turns out that one of the innovative new programs of media darling D.C. Education Chancellor Michelle Rhee that has everyone in the public policy and educational worlds chattering excitedly to one another is called "Capital Gains."

The idea is simple. Pay kids to show up on time, behave, and get good grades. Pay them cash. According to the NPR story, C grades on big tests and classes earn scalable points, and certain periods of time without truancies, tardies, or discipline issues also earn scalable points. Each point is worth $2.00 and a student can earn up to $1,500 in a school year.

Now, I haven't yet read this month's Atlantic story -- a luxurious, 7-page spread with an additional full-page photograph -- about Chancellor Rhee and her Blackberry-toting attempts to reform what may well be the nation's worst school system. But if this is the kind of thing she's doing, color me skeptical.

First of all, it is difficult to connect the gratification of the reward with the act that earned it when the two events are separated by large amounts of time. Kids especially respond to incentives when those incentives are delivered immediately. Here, it doesn't sound like the kids are going to get the rewards very often.

Secondly, teaching a kid that money is the reward for doing well in school will make the kid's desire to excel collapse when the kid gets to a level of education where there is no money.

Third, when these kids get to the workplace, they're going to wonder where their bonuses are for showing up on time, not getting into fights with co-workers, and doing their jobs to a "meets expectations" level are. For most folks, your reward for showing up to work on time, doing an acceptably good job, and behaving yourself appropriately in the workplace is not getting fired. This is actually something of a challenge for some people, as it turns out.

Fourth, the point of education is to learn things. I think that injecting money, as opposed to the more intangible rewards of an educational system, is likely to diminish the desire to actually learn as opposed to achieve certain results. The incentives here are as much to cheat on a test as they are to do things the real way. I don't think the program's sponsors want to pay students to learn how to become better cheats.

Fifth, what happens if one of these classes seems to produce an entire class of well-behaved, punctual overachievers in the course of a single year? Teachers are (allegedly) underpaid for the long hours and hard work they put in. So imagine that you're an overworked, underpaid urban teacher struggling to repay burdensome student loans when a student makes this proposition: "Teacher, if you make sure I get $1,500 at the end of the year, I'll pay you $500 of it." Teachers are far from immune from the temptations of corruption and cheating.

Sixth, what effect will this have on neighboring schools' students, who see their friends getting paid for schoolwork while they aren't getting any of that phat school cash? Won't that disincent them?

Finally, the NPR report hints at a rather critical problem -- the incentive may not be adequate to acheive its intended goal. So you lose a $2.00 "point" for mouthing off to your teacher. The emotional gratification of a pre-pubescent student gained by mouthing off to a teacher may well be worth more than $2.00 that kid. You get $20.00 for an "A" in a class and $10.00 for a "C." Given that the class seems like drudge work and is challenging to the young student anyway, the student may well decide that the effort-to-reward ratio is more than satisfactorily met with getting any money at all.

I don't want to squelch a good idea or innovating thinking about a critical area like this. But cash for grades is something that, at least on an institutional scale, seems doomed to failure.

1 comment:

trumwill said...

I only partially agree with you. The time-lapse is problematic. But it's not something that can't be worked around. Having smaller rewards more frequently may be a better way to go. On the other hand, No-Pass-No-Play rules kept some rather unruly jocks in line despite the same time lag.

Where I really disagree with you is that the reward for showing up to your job is not not getting fired, it's getting a paycheck. A paycheck that you know you won't get if you get fired.

You worry about the time-lapse of a grading period and justifiably so, but the deal with a lot of kids now is a reward time-lapse of years. I didn't get paid to do well in school, but I did it for the rather immediate reward of parental approval more than anything. Most kids don't have parents with the kind of moral authority that mine had to compel me to do the right thing. It seems to me that they need other incentives. Maybe money isn't the solution... but maybe it's something that good help.