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…For Teaching ELL, ESL, & EFL

Can’t Economists Stay Away From Schools? Don’t They Have Enough Other Things To Do?


Just what we need, another study from economists telling us how to make schools more effective (one released earlier this year concluded that “The message is to fire people sooner rather than later” ).

This new study, The Behavioralist Goes to School: Leveraging Behavioral Economics to Improve Educational Performance, has several authors, including Steven D. Levitt of Freakonomics fame.

They wanted to see if students would try harder on a standardized test if they knew they would get cash or some kind of immediate reward if they improved on their results. They tried offering these rewards in a couple of different ways, but found the biggest test improvement would come if they gave the student the money ($20) or non-cash award before the test and then told them they would have to give it back if they didn’t score well.

Let me tell ya’, implementing that kind of policy would really help create a positive classroom culture!

The Atlantic has an article about the study, which did have some interesting comments questioning some their statistical analyses (I’d love it if someone more familiar with statistics might take the time to review the paper — it only costs $5 to purchase it). Here’s how the article sums up the conclusions of the study:

This paper’s clever conclusion is that we can manipulate lessons from economics and psychology to trick/bribe/nudge students toward spending more from their attention budget on these tests.

Yup, that’s what we should be doing — not try to figure out how to help students motivate themselves. Instead, let’s emphasize Bribing students: Another ‘magical solution’ that doesn’t work.

And let’s make sure we place even more of an emphasis on standardized tests while we’re at it.

I’m sure readers agree we don’t do enough of that now….

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Do you think school boards should offer higher salaries as an incentive for teachers to work harder educating their students? Your post suggests that either 1) school boards have wasted a great deal of money on salary increases when self motivation would be enough to get teachers to do even more work to educate their students or 2) money does become a motivation for behavior at some unspecified age. At what age does money start to motivate behavior?

    You also call this a “magical solution that does not work”, yet the study suggests it does and you have no evidence that the study is flawed in any way. You hope others will find the evidence that will justify your statement. What if they don’t find it? Will you change your mind and at least call it a solution that seems to work?

    • Neal,

      If you go to the links in my piece, you’ll find links to extensive research that documents how these kinds of incentives might work for a short term effect, but not for the long run. My linked article in the Washington Post also discusses the importance of “baseline” rewards so that people feel they are feeling fairly “compensated” — for teachers, that would mean a reasonable salary and good working conditions; for students, that would mean engaging lessons and a supportive classroom environment.


      • Larry,

        Would you feal you are “fairly compensated” if you are putting much more time into your teaching and getting much better results then others in your school but you get the same pay as a beginning or ineffective teacher? I think the answer is no, and that is why there is almost allways at least a rough attempt to pay people more (and by that I mean to include nonpecuniary payments) the more effective they are at their jobs. The simplest way to do this is to increase pay with longevity or with additional training, but but we all know that is far from a perfect measure of effectivness.

        To say that you will not do something because you will not be fairly compensated for it is to say you respond to incentives. To say that you will do something, like get additional training, because you will be fairly compensated is also to say that you respond to incentives.

  2. Larry:

    So true. Next we will see these ideas combined with that galvanic response system for and students that was in the news last week!

    Back in January I did a cartoon about economists doing education studies, the one that focused on successful teaching.

    It’s at

  3. I substitute teach full-time. One day, just after dismissal at a middle school, a group of students (apparently waiting for their rides home in another room) came into my room and, with dispatch and vigor, began putting the chairs up on the desks. (This apparently needed to be done, though the teacher had not left me instructions to that effect.) I felt a minor euphoria, rejoicing that these students were so inclined to be helpful. A few minutes later, I learned that they each had been offered a candy bar to do this.

    I’ve had several occasions where I asked a student to do something – which in my opinion he ought to do out of a sense of decency and cooperation – and the response has been words to the effect, “What’s in it for me; what do I get in return?” My reply – usually with the air of one having had the wind taken out of his sails – “the good feeling that comes with being cooperative and helpful.”

    This is a result of the grasping commercial culture which predominates here in The Land of the Fee and the Home of the Craven. I abhor this attitude and world view, but I don

  4. (Seems reply space here is rather parsimonious, so dispensing with proper paragraphing.)
    Seems unrealistic to expect student-children to resist succumbing to the negotiating behavior adults (outside school, economists) model for them. How does their status as minors reasonably impose this duty on them? In that taxpayers foot the bill, it seems the height of presumption, entitlement (if not arrogance) for students to expect also to be paid. They value their iPods and $150 athletic shoes, and money which buys those things, but don’t consider a decent education sufficient reward and “incentivization” (as “job-creators” would put it). “Job-creators” consider students “human resources,” truth be known, but for public relations purposes simply can’t get away with publicly calling a K-5 student a “resource.” Regarding the limits of financial “incentivization,” what incentivizes someone to enter the military to possibly go in harm’s way to be killed or maimed for life? Financial security? Yes, in some cases. That of a “Corporations-are-people-my-friend!” venture capitalist?

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