Last month, I wrote about a questionable study that touted the idea of “loss aversion” as a successful strategy to get students to do better at tests. In other words, they gave students a trophy or some cash before they took the test and told them they would have to give it back if they didn’t do well. As one of the researchers told an interviewer:

Yeah, it’s hard when you rip a trophy out of the hands of an eight year old.

You can read more about that study at Can’t Economists Stay Away From Schools? Don’t They Have Enough Other Things To Do? and at Part Two Of “Can’t Economists Stay Away From Schools?” — My Worst Fears Realized.

Well, most of those same economists, with the addition of Roland G. Fryer, Jr, are back at it. This time, though, they’re applying the idea of “loss aversion” to teachers (thanks to the Shanker Blog for the tip).

In this new study, Enhancing the Efficacy of Teacher Incentives through Loss Aversion: A Field Experiment, they found that if they gave teachers several thousand dollars at the beginning of the year and told them they’d have to return it if their students didn’t do well on math tests, then students did better on those tests (though it doesn’t appear to me to be significantly better and it didn’t track results past one school year — I’d be interested in hearing from others more versed on statistics, and readers might be interested in The Best Resources For Understanding How To Interpret Education Research).

I questioned what kind of positive classroom culture a “loss aversion” strategy would create with students, and I wonder what kind of affect a similar plan with teachers would have on school culture. The usual kind of teacher merit pay is bad enough (see The Best Resources For Learning Why Teacher Merit Pay Is A Bad Idea), but it seems to me that this kind of threatened “take-away” strategy might even be more offensive. It seems to exemplify what behavioral economist Dan Ariely said as part of the National Research Council report criticizing the role of testing in education:

“These policies are treating humans like rats in a maze. We keep thinking about how to reorganize the cheese to get the rats to do what we want. People do so much more than that.”

Abraham Maslow said “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” It seems to me that many (though not all) economists see teachers and students only through the lens of financial incentives.

If these economists have money they want to spend on seeing what improves academic achievement in schools, I’ve shared my suggestions for how they spend it in a Washington Post column.

I also wonder how the professors who wrote the study would feel if their salaries incorporated a loss aversion component?

I suspect they might say their situation is different because, as they claim in their study, “teacher quality and aptitude has declined significantly in the past 40 years,” so we K-12 teachers are the ones who need this kind of program — not them.