Should We Pay Kids To Try Hard?
We may have differing opinions about the advisability of paying kids for good grades (I don’t like the idea), but Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame has some interesting data on how it affects kids’ performance:
“We use direct financial incentives to motivate so many different activities in life. No one expects workers in a fast food restaurant to flip burgers for free. No one expects teachers to show up and teach without getting paid. But when it comes to kids in school, we think that the distant financial rewards they will earn years or decades later should be enough to motivate them, even though for most kids a month or two feels like an eternity.
To learn a little more about whether kids’ school effort responds to financial incentives, John List, Suzanne Neckermann, Sally Sadoff, and I carried out a series of field experiments we recently wrote up as a working paper.
Unlike most previous studies involving kids, schools, and payments, in this research we aren’t trying to get kids to study hard or learn more; we were going after something even more simple: just get the student to try hard on the test itself. So we don’t tell the kids about the financial reward ahead of time—we just surprise them right before they sit down to take the test by offering them up to $20 for improvements.
To see any gains from the financial incentives, the students need to know that they will be paid right away. If instead we tell them we will pay them one month later, they don’t do any better than with no incentives at all. This is bad news for those who argue that payoffs that come years or decades in the future are sufficient to motivate students.
The very best results come when we give the students the money before the test, and then we take the money back if they don’t meet the standards. This result is consistent with what psychologists call ‘loss aversion.’
With young kids, it is a lot cheaper to bribe them with trinkets like trophies and whoopee cushions, but cash is the only thing that works for the older students.
It is remarkable how offended people get when you pay students for doing well – so many negative emails and comments. [Harvard economist] Roland Fryer endured the same onslaught as he has experimented with financial incentives in cities around the U.S. Many middle-class families pay kids for grades, so why is it so controversial for other people to pay them?” Read more here.
Interested to hear your thoughts on the specifics of Levitt’s study, as well as on the general question of paying students for trying hard or getting good grades. Much better, I think, to make the learning itself engaging enough that kids want to know more and to achieve a sense of mastery. But is that pie-in-the-sky optimism? My kids aren’t old enough to take tests or get grades yet—would love to hear from those of you with older kids.