Friday, August 10, 2007

the child's guide to incentives

Tyler Cowen's Discover Your Inner Economist has come. It may be that its superficial level of analysis was thought appropriate to a general audience.

(My first thoughts on the book seem to have expanded into a monstrous post, so I begin here and put the whole thing on the sister blog.)

To take an example, Cowen comments briefly on the use of financial incentives to reward students for good grades:

Roland Fryer, an economist at Harvard, decided to conduct an experiment and pay students for better grades. A new pilot program will reward schoolchildren if they do well on reading and math exame throughout the school year. A score of 80, for instance, would receive a $20 bonus, with further payments for later improvements. Fryer remarked to a reporter: "There are people who are worried about giving kids extra incentives for something that they should be intrinsically able to do...I understand that, but there is a huge achievement gap in this country, and we have to be proactive."

Indeed there have been experiments with paying for grades. A school near Detroit, in the Birmingham school district, started paying third-graders "Beverly Bucks" for doing well on homework and tests. A spelling test is worth $2. Their "paycheck" was denominated in terms of dollars but it was good only in the school store. The children also paid taxes on the hallways and on the playgrounds. They could forfeit money too. "If I accidentally hit somebody, I have to lose $4 or $5," said Shane Holmes, eight, who appeared to find a loss that size horrifying.

Fryer has yet to finish this experiment, but I have a prediction: this method will work best in bad schools, where children otherwise see no reason to do their homework or pay attention in class.

There is in fact a long history of paying students for good grades. It was tried as early as 1820, in the New York City school system, by the Society for Progressive Education. The system was abandoned by the 1830s, on the grounds that it encouraged a "mercenary spirit" rather than learning.

Now, an enormous amount of research has been done on the use of token economies in various closed societies (of which schools are only one example) -- various populations in no position to resist experiments in social engineering (children, prisoners, asylum inmates) have been offered the chance to earn rewards in return for various sorts of behaviour valued by the institution. Since time put in at such an institution generally makes it impossible for the inmate to devote time and energy to getting things he or she actually wants, the chance to get something for something is generally welcomed and effective in encouraging the desired behaviour.

(continued here)


Jenny Davidson said...

You remind me of a related point I deeply believe in--do you not think that many teenagers, given the opportunity to make adequate money to cover rent and food, would be better off living by themselves from about age 13-14? I actually deeply feel from personal experience & from observation of many Young People that there is a window from age 12-13 to 16-17 where we are actually MORE sensible and responsible than we will then be once we go absolutely lunatically crazy when unleased on college years. The dangerous thing about 17-18 is that you have sort of come into your full powers, only with emotional volatility to match, and complete lack of impulse control! Whereas in some ways at 13-14 you are still a child with a child's clear sense of what should and should not be done...

Ithaca said...

I think it would have been better for me if I had been able to live independently from that age. It's hard for me to live with other people, though, so I don't know how typical this is.

Jenny Davidson said...

Yeah, I guess I'm that person too, somewhat atypical: and in fact college-era insanity in retrospect can partly be attributed to the sheer impossibility of finding a place to have very long hours of time by oneself. I definitely wish I could have spent my last three years of high school in my own apartment, it would have saved me a lot of grief then and later on...

Jenny Davidson said...

p.s. I did have a real typewriter, a hand-me-down from my dad (also pre-electric), I was obsessed with it and used it fairly heavily...

Leitmotifish said...

I think young people should be free.

A person can be around for about two decades never once given the chance to choose how much money they want to spend on food, not to mention books! not to meantion how to spend their time (all that time!!) like, jail.

I think it is REALLY a crime and I think if people are respected adults and are thinking that and are not doing anything, and I mean not doing even ONE thing about it than they are the criminals.

but I might just be emotionally volatil

Ithaca said...

jd -- but maybe it is not atypical, it seems as though many many children have tree houses, forts, this kind of thing

leitmotifish -- i suspect the difficulty is simply that the right to education itself had to be fought for so long (and in fact has by no means been won everywhere), the fight to end the exploitation of children's labour (again by no means won) also took up so much energy -- and for many people these still look like compelling priorities. Reverting to Cowen's point, anyway, my understanding is that Brazil is having very good success providing cash incentives to keep children in school.

"Post-Google" by TAR ART RAT said...

Actually, I kind-of think this is a good little system... my father paid for report cards and until age 9 or 10 that was my only source income, so it was something to work for. As I remember:
A was $10
B was $5
C was $1

BUT in situations where the money being "earned" is just Xeroxed paper I could definiely foresee a lot of forgery.