I just noticed a story in the NY Post (via Slashdot) about a New York City program to pay 4th and 7th graders for doing well on assessment tests. $250 for 4th graders, $500 for 7th graders. This is an awful idea, for a whole bunch of reasons spelled out in Alfie Kohn's excellent book Punished by Rewards. I'll spell out two of my favorites:

  1. The question isn't what happens when you pay for grades, it's what happens when you stop. Kohn's book is all about what economists call Crowding Out and social psychologists call the corruption effect of extrinsic incentives. The basic idea is that when you pay someone to do something they might have their own reasons for doing anyway, you remove the intrinsic incentive (i.e. curiosity, love of learning) and replace it with the extrinsic one ($$$$). You create the expectation of being paid for grades and school work. That would be fine if we could pay kids indefinitely – and, for that matter, if we could pay for all the hard things that you learn to stick to because school is hard. But we can't. So I don't really care how kids do when they're being paid. I care how they do after they stop getting paid. I would put big money that the results of a longitudinal evaluation (which I'm guessing no one will ever do) would show few appreciable gains as a result of the program once the $$ is gone.
  2. Paying for grades is exploitative. The kids in this program are almost all in low-income schools. They're people for whom $250 or $500 could be a lot of money. I realize that's the point – if it weren't enough money it wouldn't be motivational. But it's also taking advantage of poverty, and putting kids in a position of stress. Parents may put pressure on kids, and kids may put pressure on themselves. Again, I realize that's the point. The program is built on the (false) notion that paying for grades is okay because it leads to educational improvement. But, as I explained above, it doesn't, and it won't. So then it just becomes exploitation. If we're gonna pay poor kids for grades, why not find under-achieving kids with medical problems, and trade health care for grades? Or find kids with immigration problems and trade citizenship for grades? Oh, do those ideas sound too sleazy?

What's interesting is that this program is the brain-child of Harvard Economist Roland Fryer through Harvard's EdLabs. This guy clearly knows his stuff, is generally a rising star, and he should absolutely know better. This is the worst kind of narrow-minded economics. I was hoping we'd moved beyond it.