Markets for Everything: School Attendance Edition

Today’s NYT has a nice little op-ed/news piece on important stories from the last two weeks that no one noticed on account of the conventions. The last piece is the scariest, about the more rapid than expected pace of global warming. Alas, I have no expertise no anything related and thus will sit in my coffee shop and worry, but that’s about it.

The piece that interested me the most, however, was about incentives and payments and socialization and, well, stuff I pretend to be learning about.

Op-Ed Contributor – The Two Weeks You Missed – Op-Ed –

PAY FOR STUDENTS Public middle-school students in the District of Columbia have some of the lowest test scores in the nation. So in a pilot program this fall, about 3,000 of them will be paid for showing up at school, behaving well and getting good grades.

The idea of giving students financial incentives is starting to gain traction throughout the nation, with schools in New York City and five states experimenting with cash-for-grades. The district?s schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, says the rationale is simple: ?This is exactly what life is about. You get a paycheck every two weeks. We?re preparing children for life.?

A couple of thoughts. First, I really wonder how well these programs can work now, but I also wonder (idly) how historically specific that effectiveness is. Is it something about this time and place (broadly speaking) that makes this logic of financial incentives being effective in every domain of life somehow true, or true-ish?

Programs in places like Mexico and Brazil that gave families food if their children (frequently focused on daughters) stayed in school have been shown to be pretty effective, I believe, but the benefits there are (perhaps) more obvious – hungry children can’t learn well, and given the choice between going hungry at school and working to buy food, many families chose the latter (to the extent we can call that a choice. But we’re in economics land right now, so everything is a choice.). I wonder how the logic works in DC? Instead of focusing on biological necessity (avoiding hunger), the DC program focuses on the presumed strength of financial motives. To the extent those motives hold, the program might work.

But what message does it sound about education? On the one hand, as someone currently being paid to go to school, I feel pretty starkly hypocritical in suggesting that somehow money taints the purity of education or somesuch. On the other hand, I’ve already internalized the ‘intrinsic’ value of learning/knowledge/school etc. I wonder about middle-schoolers. What happens if the money dries up at some point? Will students, expecting payment in return for their labor (attending class) now refuse to do so? Or will the rest of the system, given a chance to work its magic, socialize them into the cult of knowledge (not meant derogatorily at all) we all love? In any event, I look forward to the retrospective studies in 5 and 10 years where they figure out what these programs actually did.

Lastly, does this quote creep anyone else out? “This is exactly what life is about. You get a paycheck every two weeks. We’re preparing children for life.” I know we live in a capitalist society and all, but sometimes I forget how deep that is. Like, what happened to exploration, wonder, love, joy, etc.? Apparently they are not what life is about.

“The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.”

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  1. The practice of parents paying their kids for good grades is not anything new, though. I don’t think it works, but I have no data to back that up. I’m torn: on the one hand, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to reward students for what you should be expecting out of them. On the other hand, positive reinforcement works better than negative (but then, only if it is sporadic and unpredictable).

    I also have some thoughts about social class and learning, but House is back on. Later, perhaps.

  2. Rewards don’t work. The whole concept is covered quite well in Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards. Even positive reinforcement has to be specific, focussed more on the process than the result.

    Also, the article the NYTimes is referencing (to the best of my Googling) is, which mentions a pilot program to pay students in NYC for AP grades. It showed that kids were more likely to take the exams but actually scored lower than those who took the test before pay incentives took effect.

    Frankly, the whole idea of paying students is just plain giving up. Rather than reform the methods of teaching, it’s a band-aid. The best motivation to learn is curiosity and the joy of learning itself, which must be protected and nurtured.