January 29, 2008

Alfie Kohn and Diane Ravitch agree!

This week, the zeitgeist in education news is paying students for test scores, as in the Baltimore Sun article yesterday or the USA Today story, but so-called incentive programs have been in the news before and criticized before: See criticisms of Pizza Hut's "Book It" program or Barry Schwartz's column last July, which scored New York City's initiative to pay students for test scores. While they sound good in theory (reward kids for doing well!), it rubs a number of people the wrong way, including Elena Silva of Education Sector, Diane Ravitch, Eduwonkette, and even conservative Liam Julian, who criticized such programs last year (though I'm linking to my blog entry because the original column has suffered linkrot). And virtually the whole education world knows about Alfie Kohn's opposition to tangible incentives. So what could possibly bring folks from very different stripes together; after all, as Robert Pondiscio points out, isn't giving one incentive the same as giving any incentive, and all we're doing is haggling over the price?

First, a bit of disillusionment: while Kohn and Ravitch both talk about intrinsic rewards, I suspect only one of them will agree with the second half of the reasoning below.

There are two problems with paying students cash for achievement. One is that these programs are not finely calibrated. Whether they reward status achievement (straight As or a certain score on standardized tests) or some sort of growth/effort, there are going to be some rewarded students who did not work hard for the reward and other unrewarded students who probably deserve it. Two consequences flow from that fact. First, students will perceive it as unfair, once the money is doled out. Well, maybe we should be teaching teenagers that "merit pay" isn't always distributed on an equitable basis (see Robert Dreeben's work), but I suspect a program that doesn't pass the adolescent sniff test for fairness will alienate rather than motivate students, with the consequences magnified because of the money stakes. In addition to the fairness issue, there is the research question of whether rewarding students' focused effort and improvement is better or worse than rewarding status. Most program administrators probably make decisions based on seat-of-the-pants judgments rather than the research.

There is a second problem with paying students cash for achievement, and that is the question of the reward itself: will it promote continued effort, or will it be tangential to effort? A case in point from my own experience as a parent, and that of many other parents: you go to the library with your elementary-school child and borrow some books that the child chooses. You all return home. The child reads the book. What is the reward for the child's reading the book? My wife and I didn't think about it at the time in this way, but what our children chose was to return to the library to get more books. The reward was another library trip, which promoted reading. Many math teachers have bonus questions on tests to keep some occupied when they finish the main questions earlier than other students. But the bonus questions also reward completing the test by giving the students more opportunity to challenge themselves. Students of moderate means who work their tail off in high school should be rewarded by an opportunity to attend college at reduced cost (a scholarship), which promotes learning. And so forth.

From this, I'd argue that the more fundamental problem with rewarding achievement with cash is that such rewards do not promote additional learning. While Roland Fryer (the designer of NYC's incentives program) is obviously a very smart new scholar, he is thinking of the rewards from a fairly narrow perspective, assuming that all incentives are fungible and ignoring the post-award uses of rewards. We know that Pizza Hut is engaged in marketing rather than a promotion of reading because it rewards kids with pizza instead of with books. And we'll see appropriate incentives when their use is intimately tied to additional effort.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on January 29, 2008 11:00 AM |