Motivation or bribery? On paying kids to show up, do better

Research into the practice of paying students to perform at school is showing mixed results, and it’s highlighting problems with an approach that relies on rewards after more than a decade in practice.

Education Week recently highlighted efforts by some schools to incentivize student attendance or performance through a variety of means, from cash to cars. The practice first gained traction following the federal No Child Left Behind Act passed by Congress in 2001, and the resulting research in both the U.S. and internationally shows results depend a lot on how programs are designed.

One of the biggest studies involved Harvard University economist Roland Fryer, who led a series of experiments through the mid-2000s that paid out over $6 million to more than 18,000 low-income students in Chicago, Dallas, New York City, and the District of Columbia in hopes of improving test scores.

According to Ed Week:

The major takeaway from Fryer’s research is that inducements are more likely to work if a program incentivizes things students feel they can control. In technical terms, that means rewarding inputs instead of outputs, said Jeffrey Livingston, an associate professor of economics at Bentley University. Students don’t necessarily know how to improve their test scores, so even if they’re motivated to try harder, that doesn’t mean they can actually do better.

“If the incentive is tied to the performance on the test, the effects are small if there at all,” said Livingston. “But if you tie it to the preparation for the test, the studying, like incentivizing reading a book or doing practice tests . . . that tends to have much bigger effects.”

In other places, similar efforts also met mixed results, though some school officials contend it’s had a generally positive effect.

The Union R-XI School District in Missouri offered students up to $100 for perfect attendance at summer school, Tennessee’s Shelby County schools offered Memphis Grizzlies tickets to students with good attendance, and the famed Success Academy charter school network has also offered small prizes like Nerf guns for good behavior.

“I think rallying around something that’s such a positive, fun way to improve attendance helps change the culture of the school,” Megan Berceau, intervention specialist at the Granite school district in Utah, told Ed Week.

Berceau said incentives like allowing students to ride non-motorized scooters to class as a reward for good attendance has kept some of them motivated.

Others, including Raytown, MO, Superintendent Allan Markley said incentives that offer something students truly want is the key. In Raytown, school officials raffled off two cars to students with top attendance.

“A lot of kids are working to support their family, a lot of them are homeless. What can we do to entice kids to come to school? They are dealing with a lot and coming to school may not be their number one priority,” Markley said. “So, what does every 16-year-old dream of? Something with four wheels, maybe?”

Incentives haven’t worked as well in many other districts, however.

Parents complained in 2015 when a New Jersey school district announced plans to award gift cards to students who showed up to take state standardized tests, for example.

Tulane University education researcher Douglas Harris contends many parents and educators oppose the incentives because they seemingly contradict the purpose of education.

“If your goal is to instill a love of learning, paying students to read books doesn’t really do that,” he told Ed Week. “It doesn’t reflect the view of teaching and learning that most educators support. They don’t want it to be transactional.”

Incentivizing youngsters to encourage good behavior using bribes, consequences, or surveillance is nothing new, and the programs in place at many schools simply formalize a process that’s been used by parents for years.

But there’s a difference between bribing students into good behavior and motivating them to do what’s right for its own sake. Parents and educators successfully instill responsible behavior when students do what’s right without incentives. The ultimate goal is to cultivate a moral autonomy that allows them to make those decisions on their own.

James Davison Hunter wrote in The Tragedy of Moral Education in America that “ . . . character education programs can work . . . when people react to the idea of acting in certain ways the way most Americans react to the idea of eating grubs.

“The right and wrong things to do should be as instinctive and as obvious as we feel food taboos to be, when the first answer to why we will do this is just ‘Well, because.’”

To develop “good sense” in students about doing right and wrong, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues offers a lesson framework for teachers, administrators, and parents.

Ripley’s international investigation of boys’ motivation reveals need for character focus

There’s a global phenomenon in education that’s especially obvious in Middle Eastern countries—girls are outperforming boys in school and pursuing educational opportunities their male classmates are not.

Amanda Ripley recently traveled to Jordan to investigate the problem through a reporting fellowship program, and she found the issue among boys boils down to a lack of motivation and disconnect with school, rather than intellect. Incorporating character formation in schools can address students’ motivation challenges by helping them keep the purpose of their education in mind.

Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way and senior fellow at the Emerson Collective, published an in-depth report about her trip, research, and interviews with students in The Atlantic last month.

Ripley explained that she wanted to understand why girls in the Middle East do better in school, despite far fewer, lower-paying employment opportunities than those available to men. But she also noted that the trend isn’t an isolated problem.

“It’s part of a pattern that is creeping across the globe: Wherever girls have access to school, they seem to eventually do better than boys,” Ripley wrote. “In 2015, teenage girls outperformed boys on a sophisticated reading test in 69 countries—every place in which the test was administered.”

In the U.S., “girls are more likely to take Advanced Placement tests, to graduate from high school, and to go to college, and women continue their education over a year longer than men,” she wrote.

Natasha Ridge, executive director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in the United Arab Emirates, told Ripley she thinks boys, particularly low-income boys, are disengaging from school.

“If you give girls a quality education, they will mostly run with it and do amazing things,” said Ridge, who studies gender education issues.

“These boys struggle to find a connection between school and life,” she said, “and school is increasingly seen as a waste of time.”

Ripley visited several schools in Jordan, where students are segregated by gender and taught by educators of their same sex. Some students and parents claimed girls have less freedom in Middle Eastern society, so they stay home and study more, while boys play a lot of video games and roam the streets.

Others claimed boys and girls are equally dedicated to school, but boys’ schools are much less inspiring, violent places, in part because most men don’t want to be teachers and schools struggle to find quality educators.

Still others claimed men in Middle Eastern societies have a much easier time gaining employment, and therefore do not need to study as hard in school as girls to land a good job.

Ripley found credence to several of the claims, and she compared what she learned in Jordan to educational achievement in the United States, both in coeducational and single-gender settings. She also spoke with psychologists and other experts.

What she realized is lot of factors play into the issue in both the Middle East and the U.S., but it seems to boil down to one word: motivation.

Ripley writes:

Motivation is the dark matter of education. It’s everywhere but impossible to see. Motivation helps explain why some countries get impressive education results despite child poverty and lackluster teaching, while others get mediocre results despite universal health care and free iPads. When kids believe in school, as any teacher will tell you, everything gets easier. So it’s crucial to understand the motivation to learn and how it works in the lives of real boys and girls. Because the slow slipping away of boys’ interest in education represents a profound failure of schools and society. And the implications are universally terrible. All over the world, poorly educated men are more likely to be unemployed, to have physical- and mental-health problems, to commit acts of violence against their families, and to go to prison. They are less likely to marry but quite likely to father children.

And that’s exactly what seems to be happening in many Middle Eastern public schools. Elements have conspired to create an education system that isn’t working well for anyone—but especially not for boys. And it all comes back to that ethereal dark matter: “The issue is not about intellect; it’s about motivation,” Oman’s education undersecretary Hamood Khalfan Al-Harthi says, echoing the kids I spoke to who dismissed notions of girls as naturally more studious. The problem is, motivation is shaped by parents, teachers, and the culture at large. As Osman’s study noted, Omani boys do not feel like their teachers care about them, and boys are much more likely to report corporal punishment occurring at school. That’s not a motivational setting.

In the American context, one common solution to address cratering motivation is to increase “engagement,” often through career and technical education, vocational education, and now, personalized learning.

“There are so many moments in vocational education,” wrote Mike Rose in The Hedgehog Review, “when values, ethical questions, and connections of self to tradition and community emerge naturally, ripe for thoughtful consideration.”

Research-based resources from the Jubilee Center help educators work with students to learn about the importance of character in certain professions and of understanding what a flourishing life is, which helps both boys and girls to keep the big-picture goals of their daily actions in mind, and gives them something to learn for and to live for.