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Educational Incentives: I Hope Those Horses Know How To Swim…

May 27th, 2010 · 7 Comments
Incentives

So you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink…what happens when you try to get him to drink but he doesn’t know how and falls in the lake instead?

A friend posted an article on my Facebook wall about the results of several educational incentive programs (i.e. paying students to get good grades and such). Via my research on incentives and motivation (still in progress), I have stumbled upon the following general line of thought:

  • Economic Principle #4: People respond to incentives. This seems simple enough, right?
  • But there is some evidence suggesting that offering monetary rewards crowds out an individual’s underlying intrinsic motivation. That doesn’t sound good…
  • This seems like less of a problem if schools are trying to incent those who have little motivation to begin with.
  • People like Dan Pink suggest that incentives for tasks that require creativity and out-of-the-box thinking can be counterproductive. Does education fall under this heading?
  • The incentive plans offered for better grades inherently assume that students know how to be better students (and aren’t suffering from test anxiety and the like) and just aren’t trying hard enough. It’s unclear how accurate this assumption is.

Apparently the evidence so far suggests that this last assumption is a naive one. You should really read the whole article on the topic, since it’s a good overview and not too dense. The article reviews findings of studies by Josh Angrist (who does a great unintentional Ben Stein impression), Victor Lavy and Roland Fryer, and it concludes that student incentives are not a magical solution to all of the country’s educational problems. I very much agree with the idea that incentives have to be more process-oriented than “get better grades and you’ll get some cash,” since students don’t seem to know how to make this happen on their own. I also agree with Roland Fryer’s contention that there are a lot of different factors in play in a student’s education:

Mr Fryer has a different explanation. Most would agree that school facilities, teachers’ skills, and the effort both students and teachers put in all matter. But how precisely these inputs are converted into a test score is a mystery, and without knowing which lever to pull, it is difficult to design an effective incentive scheme. But leaving it up to participants to find the best way to earn goodies will not work either if, as Mr Fryer believes, pupils have very little idea how to go about improving their own scores.

I have a friend who works with Roland, and one of his ideas is to give parents incentives for their kids getting good grades, since this would give parents more of a reason to pay attention and provide the (hopefully not literal) kick in the pants that students sometimes need. I thought this idea had a lot of potential when I first heard it, but I never considered the possibility that parental involvement could do more harm than good. Via Environmental Economics:

“A ‘teacher’ told my child in class that dolphins were mammals and not fish!” a third complains. “And the same thing about whales! We need TRADITIONAL VALUES in all areas of education. If it swims in the water, it is a FISH. Period! End of Story.”

That quote is from this Washington Post article about the GOP’s “America Speaking Out” web site. I can only hope that the commenters were mocking the site rather than being serious, since there are some real gems.

Tags: Incentives

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Robert Fisher // May 27, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    This is a very cool and engaging animated version of Pink’s discussion on incentives: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc

  • 2 Steve // May 27, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    surely everyone responds to these payment incentives. however if you think about it, it is only the marginal student who has an incentive. top students will be paid whether they study or not, while bottom students have a low expectation of passing no matter their level of effort so expect not to be paid. It is only the marginal students for which payment is uncertain, but increased effort is more likely to result in payment, therefore they are the only ones with an incentive. doesn’t this explain the study’s results?

  • 3 RogC // May 31, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    Implicit in the the statement ‘People respond to incentives’ are assumptions such as rationality and the ability to respond. If you apply the incentives where the target group has extremely low possibility to change the behavior then it’s predestined to fail. If an 8th grader cannot multiply or divide then no incentive is going to help them pass algebra that year. If all public schools in the US were forced to truly test their students and place them in the grade year corresponding to their real level of knowledge then an indiscriminate incentive program could possibly be a big help. Alternatively, providing incentives to only those students at the margin where an extra push could make a difference could be very successful in the existing reality.

  • 4 Joshua // May 31, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    This is a good discussion. There is a hole in the ‘pay parents’ logic – oftentimes, schoolin’ is passed down through the parents. Many parents don’t know how to provide a proper environment, or lack the skills to help with homework. Most of the failing students come from poor homes whose parents also have little education.

    Higher education is its own society, and those on the outside oftentimes do not relate or understand.

    Besides, there is a reason people have to go to school to learn to teach. It isn’t so easy that we can just throw a few bucks at parents, and they’ll magically know how to teach kids at home.

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