Monday, April 12, 2010

Paying Students to Improve Performanc

This morning a colleague sent me a link to a recent article published on the Time magazine website titled Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?  The article is written by Amanda Ripley, and summarizes an extensive research study on the topic of offering financial incentives to students as a means of improving their performance.  This research was conducted by Dr. Roland Fryer, Jr., who is an economist at Harvard University.
Ripley references the work of Dr. Edward Deci in the article in TIME.  Daniel Pink, in his latest book DRIVE, also reference Deci's research on Self-Determination Theory to suggest external rewards and punishments do not work in the long run.  Pink describes the need to move away from Motivation 2.0 (carrot and stick type stuff) and to use Motivation 3.0 to inspire people in modern organizations (build autonomy, mastery, and purpose).  Having recently read DRIVE, I formed some pretty immediate opinions of what I was about to read.
On the whole, I think this research illustrates the line that separates many educational reform ideas:  reforms that rely on some sort of accountability measures (test scores, rewards, etc.) vs. reforms that are based more on developmental theory and building internal skills/needs.  Finland is often used as an example of a model system where trust and empowerment foster intrinsic motivation in contrast to systems that use actual test results, such as with the NCLB Act and Annual Yearly Progress.
Ripley's article turend out to be very interesting reading though, despite the bias I held as I began reading it.  Many of the concerns I had about an incentives program were identified in the article, and it is interesting to see the questions for future research that still remain with Fryer. 
The most successful of the four incentive programs used in Fryer's research comes not from paying for performance, but rather in paying students for behaviors and offering specific and meaningful feedback on their performance in a very timely (bi-weekly) fashion.  Students seemed to do the best on standardized tests at the end of the research when they received their rewards for engaging in behaviors that support learning, not necessarily for how well they could demonstrate their learning.
I initially said "Uh-Oh" to myself when I read that some of the more vocal proponents of merit pay for teachers were enthused by this approach.  The more I thought about it though, the more I questioned the benefits of a behavior-based approach for motivating teachers too?  Perhaps we could tie teacher remuneration to specific best practices teacher behaviors (such as collaborating, planning, integrating technology, differentiating learning, giving students immediate feedback, etc.) instead of tying teacher pay to results?
Would that work?  Would you all be motivated as teachers if similar rewards were applied to your behavior?  If you were given an extra $100 for sending descriptive feedback home with students ever week (for example) would that be enough to motivate you to do that?  I'm not sure how sustainable that would be, but perhaps Fryer might be motivated to extend his research in that direction. 
As I read this, I thought of how connected this research might be to locally relevant projects at the single school level. If a school were to identify the essential behaviors stakeholders felt were important, and then provided instruction (and feedback) to kids at home and at school (with the parents' help) they may be able to achieve similar goals.  The key would have to be focusing on the behaviors kids needed to have at the END and then putting a plan in place to develop those skills.  Local goals with local control of the plan and including lots of parental and community involvement is a good way to increase the chance of a reform strategy being successful. 
Just like the grade 2 students who read more in Fryer's study, and were paid for it, the kids who get more feedback for managing their own emotions should be more effective in the long term at managing their emotions.  Over time the rewards will continue to come (although in different forms) and the kids should continue to display those same behaviors....
I'm looking forward to hearing any comments people may have on this topic!!  It is controversial, for sure, which is why I think the discussion has so much potential value!