This blog has gotten many new readers over the past year. Because of that, I thought it might be worth sharing a daily “A Look Back” where I share a best post from the past twelve years. You can also see all of my choices for “Best” posts here.
I originally shared this post in 2010.
In addition, since this original post, I’ve published Best Posts On “Motivating” Students. I also have written three books on helping students motivate themselves.
You might also be interested in my Washington Post column, Bribing Students: Another ‘Magical Solution” That Doesn’t Work
Oe problem with this post is that the link to the big study I cite is no longer active. I’m confident that I was referring to one of these studies, though.
You may have heard about the study that was just released about paying students for increased academic performance (see TIME Magazine’s article Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School? and their slideshow Paying For Kids For Grades: Does It Really Work?)
I found this article to be very disturbing — disturbing enough, in fact, to decide to take the time to begin reading the entire 107 page study itself (it’s hard-going, though, and I haven’t completed it yet. I wanted to share my preliminary thoughts now since it’s being publicized so much). I was particularly disturbed by the study’s assertion that providing these kinds of financial incentives results in the same benefits that participating in a Head Start program or in a class with a smaller number of students does — “at lower cost” (page 7). I can only imagine how that analysis is going to be used by some “school reformers.”
It examined programs in three communities, and had very decidedly mixed results — my take, at least, is that in most places it didn’t work the way the study sponsors had hoped. In fact, in my reading of the study, it didn’t seem to me to work at all (I’ll elaborate on that perspective later in the post). I’d be interested in hearing what some trained social scientists might think after looking carefully at the study. I don’t pretend to have the academic background to fully understand the language of the entire study. However, I’d like to share some of my thoughts and I’d love to hear what others think, too.
WHAT DO THESE KINDS OF INCENTIVES DO?
As Daniel Pink and others have described and demonstrated much more ably than I can do here (see A Few Reflections On Daniel Pink’s New Book, “Drive”; On Rewards & Classroom Management; and New Study Shows That Paying Students For Higher Test Scores Doesn’t Work) extrinsic rewards do work — for mechanical work that doesn’t require much higher-order thinking. But it doesn’t work for anything that requires higher-order thinking skills and creativity. And, in fact, these incentives reduce intrinsic motivation over the long-term.
The study seems to reinforce that view. Paying students resulted in higher attendance and an increased number of days when they wore their school uniforms. Students passed more tests in the Accelerated Reader program (even though the study says students read more books in order to do so, I, and I’m sure others, know how easy it is for students to “game” those tests without completing the books). In addition, I think there are very few who would suggest that the AR program promotes any kind of higher-order thinking. In some locations, students who received payments increased their scores in state standardized reading comprehension tests. I’ve got to wonder, though, how accurate even those assessments are. In our school, we find that having students complete clozes (fill-in-the-blank) three times a year, along with timed reading with a teacher to measure fluency, are more accurate assessments of reading ability than standardized multiple choice tests.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CONTROL GROUPS?
One concern I have with this study is that it appears to me that it’s comparing apples and oranges. This may be how these kinds of studies are supposed to be run, but it certain raises a caution flag about its results. They provided $6 million for incentives to one group, and the control groups received….nothing. It’s similar to the critique made of studies funded by Accelerated Reading — they compare students using AR with students who are not doing any kind of expanded reading effort.
What could teachers and schools in that control group have done with that money?
How about some of the ways my colleagues and I spend our own money on students — and would love to use more money in the same way:
* Have students go on Amazon to choose books of their own which I then purchase for them.
* Purchase trail mix, graham crackers and peanut butter for students to help replenish their self-control (see “Self-Control As A Limited Energy Resource” In The Classroom)
* Buy multiple copies of books students want to use in a student-lead independent discussion group.
How about some of the ways our inner-city school prioritizes its resources — and would love to use more money in the same way:
* Stock all classrooms with their own library of high-interest books.
* Have a well-stocked school library and flexible librarian who is willing to host student-initiated book discussion groups
* Training teachers in effective, engaging literacy strategies, including free voluntary reading.
* Having counselors spend enormous amounts of time tracking down ways students can get needed eyeglasses, medical check-ups, and dental work done.
* Providing computers and home internet access to immigrant families to use for language development.
* Go on field trips to neighborhood libraries and other enriching places.
None of these efforts come with any of the dangers the extrinsic motivators do…
I wonder what effect those kinds of expanded efforts would have on student achievement, intrinsic motivation, and the development of students as life-long learners.
WHAT ABOUT AN EXIT STRATEGY?
The study doesn’t give any thought to an exit strategy.
I can see, in an extreme situation, where incentives might be an effective intervention. In fact, I’ve written a lot about how I used it in a class that got out of control last year (seeHave You Ever Taught A Class That Got “Out Of Control”?).
The difference, though, was that I used incentives to get students focused and, after six weeks, created an atmosphere where things became reversed — they wanted off the incentive program so they could demonstrate that they didn’t need it any more.
One would think that this kind of outcome would be desired by any kind of school-based incentive program.
I’m not pretending that the criticisms I’m making here would pass the muster of a peer-reviewed journal. They are my initial reactions — no more.
But, as I mentioned, the study was disturbing enough to me that I felt I needed to get something out there. I’ll be writing more about it once I can bring myself to finish reading the entire study, and I’m eager to hear other people’s reflections, too.