Monday, June 25, 2007

Paying kids to perform in school

I ran into another interesting post by Rory at Parentalcation the other day. This one dealt with a Diane Ravitch commentary on New York City's plan to pay students to perform better in school. Diane Ravitch was totally against the idea, but Rory was for giving it a shot. Now, two weeks ago, I declared Diane Ravitch to be my all-time favorite education expert after she wrote a piece defending teachers. She has authored several books and is recognized everywhere as an authority on education policy. Rory is a parent who frequently criticizes teachers and public schools. So who do you think I agree with? That's right--Rory.

Here is a blockquote from the Ravitch article that Rory used in his post. He disagreed with it, and so do I, but I've got a slightly different slant on it.

From the point of view of schooling, this plan is wrong because it tells kids that they should study only if they get extrinsic rewards. Yet what educators are supposed to do is teach kids to have a love of learning, to encourage them to improve their lives by enlarging their knowledge of the world. If they are going to study only if someone pays them, what happens when the payment ends? What will motivate the kids who are not getting cash payments when their classmates are being paid off for higher scores? The plan destroys any hope of teaching the value of intrinsic motivation, or the rewards of deferred gratification, or the importance of self-discipline for a distant but valued goal.

The idea of kids working hard in school because they have a love of learning is a wonderful thing, but that may never happen for a lot of kids if we wait for that to happen by itself. I have seen kids come to enjoy a class because they were initially motivated to get a good grade. They worked to learn the material because they wanted a good grade. Then as they began to learn the material and experience success, they actually got interested in the subject and enjoyed the class. The grade was the hook. If I'd have waited for them to love learning for its own sake, I'd still be waiting. For the kids we're talking about in New York City, grades aren't a sufficient hook, but maybe money will be.

Ms. Ravitch did say something that I definitely sympathize with: "If parents want to give their kids money to get an "A" or to pass a course, that's their private affair, but for the government to pay people to take personal responsibility for themselves is repulsive."

I completely agree with her philosophy here. And if there weren't a major problem, I would agree with her that paying students to perform better shouldn't be done. But it seems to me that we are talking about kids for whom nothing has worked. I guess I view this a little bit like FDR viewed the Depression when he became president. He believed we had to try something--anything--to get the country going, even if some parts of programs he pushed actually clashed with other things he was pushing. I think we need to try something--anything--to get these kids going. One thing that has definitely hurt education is our tendency to do or not do things based completely on philosophy, theory, or what sounds good rather than finding out what actually works. So I'm with Rory--I think it's worth giving this idea a shot.

There is one part of this plan that I completely disagree with, and it demonstrates how little the politicians understand about what actually happens in classrooms. Under the plan, kids would get paid for attending classes and taking tests, as well as passing tests. If they are going to be paid, pay them only for positive performance. Please don't pay them just for showing up. Politicians and judges have to learn that just "being in school" does absolutely nothing for anyone and it can do damage. If they are paying kids for just being there, there's a good chance they'll be paying kids for disrupting their classes and making it even harder for anyone else in those classes to learn.

Ravitch says something else in her opinion piece that I found very interesting:

From the point of view of society, the plan is wrong because it tears at the social fabric of reciprocity and civic responsibility that makes a democratic society function. Should we pay people to drive safely? Should we pay them to stop at red lights?

No, we shouldn't pay them, and we don't have to. We don't have to pay people for driving safely and stopping at red lights, because they will be punished if they don't. If they continue to drive recklessly, or if they continue to run red lights, we will take away their driving privileges. Now, if we would apply that principle to kids who won't try and won't behave in school, we wouldn't have to pay them either.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Now, if we would apply that principle to kids who won't try and won't behave in school, we wouldn't have to pay them either."

Right. So I'd be interested in hearing your argument for paying them to do what other kids have been doing for free for generations, instead of punishing them for steadfastly resisting all attempts to educate them at taxpayers' expense (which would be my preference).

6/25/2007 9:40 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Ravitch is making a couple of errors with her examples. Driving safely is not a matter of doing something active (mostly), it's a matter of refraining from doing something. If you want to limit a behavior (like speeding, for instance), punishment can work (though, like all contingencies, there are some practical issues).

Ravitch is justified in being repelled, but no more so than the system of threats for performance.

I'm not really a huge fan of the program, despite believing rewards are the best way to influence behavior. The bribery aspect doesn't bother me. Heck, bribing children's relatively cheap, right? Nor the fact that the changes wouldn't be long-lasting. She's right that the students shouldn't study just for the cash. Presumably, there are other benefits, right (recognition, potential future, etc.)? After actually engaging in studying and the other associated activities for a time, and learning the effort needed isn't quite so daunting as it might be, students should be able to see those and work for those benefits even when the cash is stopped.

Although I think it's worth a try, I have concerns about its implementation. The fact is, it's very hard to implement something like this well, and there will be more incentive for cheating the system. There always would be, of course, but if it's far easier to cheat the system than actually perform as noted, there will be more cheating than improvement.

denever, just saw your comment: punishment is useful for reducing behavior, reinforcement for increasing it. If you're relying on "escape from punishment" as a way to get them to do what you want, you need to be prepared for them to find some other way to escape punishment that you may not like.

6/25/2007 10:25 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Denever, don't get me wrong. I am not enthusiastic about this idea, but I'm not going to knock it, because no one seems to be able to find anything else that works. I've been in education a long time, and I've seen a lot of programs that were supposed to motivate the unmotivated, but nothing changes. Believe me, I would prefer the solution you seem to be suggesting, but try finding anyone in a position of power who agrees with us.

And Crypticlife I think you are absolutely right about this system being abused. As I just said, however, I'm not aware of any other ideas out there that have any better chances of working--except, of course, that solution that Denever and I would prefer.

6/25/2007 12:19 PM  
Blogger TurbineGuy said...


You got me... I assumed it was going to be another disagreement. Good lead in...

Of course students should study for the sake of learning, just like workers should work for the benefit of the country (socialism), unfortunately motivation is a complex subject and the ends justify the means. A well educated population is worth a little bribery (reward).

All I want to see is if the plan works.

6/25/2007 2:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If you're relying on 'escape from punishment' as a way to get them to do what you want ..."

Ah, sorry; I could have been clearer. No, I wasn't suggesting that punishment would motivate the problem students. I was thinking only that the punishment of removing them from the classroom altogether would prevent them from continuing to disturbing the already-motivated students.

I don't believe that every child or teenager can be motivated. Some of them just don't get it until they've left school and gotten some life experience and can finally understand what they threw away. And some never get it.

Since I don't think that money can change that, I'd rather see the dough go elsewhere.

6/25/2007 8:32 PM  
Blogger EHT said...

I have a real problem with the gov. giving students money for performance. It simply speaks of the sad, sad place we have arrived in this county with what is really important in our lives.

When I first heard about this all I could think was, "Great...just one more method to create a large segment of the population even more dependent on government."

Dennis...I wanted to let you know that I tagged you for something. You might not want to totally participate, but there are some creative ways around it. Intrigued? Come on over.

6/26/2007 8:39 AM  

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