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.