A quick question for Gifted Exchange readers: do you reward your children for good grades? What do they think about this?
My family used to go out for ice cream if we got good report cards, and I can't say that it particularly affects me much now. My husband, the way he tells it, used to get to go out for King Crab Legs if all four kids got straight A's (which I guess they usually did). It seems to have left quite an impression on him, because every time we're at a restaurant that serves King Crab Legs, he orders them.
The question of whether rewards work has long been debated in education. Dan Pink's Drive (which I reviewed for City Journal here) makes the case that pay-for-performance doesn't work if you want the most creative results. The strongest motivation is intrinsic: you do something because the action itself is pleasurable to you.
No one argues that we would love to have kids learning because they love to learn. I also think it's not particularly controversial to say that a lot of kids don't necessarily show this kind of motivation (or at least schools haven't tapped into it). So what should be done?
This past week, Time magazine ran a cover story about a recent, multi-city study that looked into whether cash awards can boost student learning. You can read the article, "Is Cash The Answer" by following the link in this sentence. The experiment was run by Roland Fryer, a young Harvard economist who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks himself, and would like to figure out a way to boost the performance of at-risk kids.
The answer to whether cash is the answer? Maybe. As Time reporter Amanda Ripley writes, "The results are fascinating and surprising. They remind us that kids, like grownups, are not puppets. They don't always respond the way we expect." For instance, in New York City, paying for higher test scores did not lead to any measurable effect on end-of-year standardized tests. In Washington DC, rewarding for five different activities improved reading skills. In Dallas, paying kids to read boosted reading comprehension scores by the equivalent of being in school an extra 3 months (which is quite a big difference).
Fryer and his team have puzzled through the differences, and seem to have taken a few things away from these results. First, incentives work when kids can actually directly control how they will do. Getting a grade is pretty subjective, but you can control if you read a book, or if you show up for class or don't get in a fight. And second, you have to know how to achieve success. As Ripley puts it (quoting another economist), if I ask you to solve a third-order linear partial differential equation right now, and you don't know what I mean, it really doesn't matter if I offer you a million dollars. You're not going to be able to do it. If a kid doesn't know how to do better at geometry, cash doesn't help. But kids do know how to read through a book. They know when they have successfully done that. Hence the Dallas program, which paid for that, had the most success in jump-starting learning. Read enough books, and you get better at reading.
So what does this have to do with gifted education? Many highly gifted kids do, intrinsically, love to learn. Their brains are good at learning, at figuring things out. As parents, we want to be careful not to step on this joy. On the other hand, other things -- like turning in homework on time -- may not be so natural, and may be an area that's more ripe for rewards.