Thursday, April 15, 2010

Time Mag: Is Cash the Answer?

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.


hschinske said...

Going out for ice cream doesn't seem so much like a reward to me -- it seems like a celebration. Something good happened, we're all happy, let's mark the moment -- that seems different than ten dollars an A, five dollars an A minus (a friend of mine in high school used to get that -- and it was a lot of money back then). More like opening the champagne when you get a raise.

Helen Schinske

Kevin said...

We reward effort, not grades. For example, if homework is done before 8pm we watch an episode of Mythbusters on DVD.

When the report card comes, we look at it together and read the feedback from the teachers. A smile and a hug is about all the "reward". Same for winning a science fair or a math competition---though the science fair gets more frequent feedback, because of the enormous amount of effort that goes into it.

Anonymous said...

We struggled with this issue about a year ago when my son was attending a school with some very affluent families. Those kids got paid for grades and my son wondered why we didn't do the same. He got straight A's and figured he would really make out. When he posed the question, one morning on our drive to school, I turned it around and asked him how he felt when he got a bad grade, then how he felt when he got a good grade. He admitted to feeling really good about a good grade and I told him that that was his reward. That his motivation to do well had to come from within him to mean anything. That made sense to him and we haven't discussed it since. Sometimes though we do go out for a special dinner to celebrate report cards. Just to acknowledge the effort and the results of that effort.

Mary VK said...

Going out for ice cream was a celebration for parents too! Occasionally we have still celebrated our children's achievements and birthdays--in their absence--by a DQ trip. And when Laura's book (168 Hours) comes out next month, we'll celebrate again--maybe not ice cream, but one way or another.

Estela said...

I agree that there's a difference between reward and celebration. I also think you might consider what is worth celebrating or rewarding. For me, learning how to ride a bicycle was an embarrassingly huge deal -- required TONS of bribes -- and deserved a big celebration at the end. Getting straight As? I'd get high fives for that. (Ok, and perhaps ice cream or pizza, but neither one of those were scarce during my childhood, straight As or not). Anyway, the low-key response seems about right. As an adult, I've gotten somewhat better at dealing with recognition/praise for things that don't require any effort, but for a long time, I didn't quite know what to do with it. I see the same thing happening with my DD now. I'll high five her for something, and even though she doesn't verbalize it, her facial expression says "High five for that? Really? Wait until I do something noteworthy."

D said...

We disregard grades here. 1/3 of the grade is class participation and is highly subjective. Part of the grade (roughly 10%) is effort and our child that is on the low side of normal for penmanship always rec'd a zero for that component on any written or coloring project all through middle school - could not see penalizing the kid when he and the OT said it was his best effort although the teachers could (the myth is that the child is lazy).

We only look at test and quiz scores. A 100 is usually it's own reward. We reward the job well done with praise for effort.

Anonymous said...

We never paid for good grades, just celebrated them. I didn't think I would ever do this but a friend told me she rewarded her second child for a good PSAT score when her oldest barely missed the cutoff and it paid off for her. I offered my son $250 towards a much wanted laptop computer if he matched the cut off for the previous year. This was an attainable goal for him so the money just gave him a little more incentive to take practice tests, and on the day of the real test to check answers, slow down, use his time wisely, etc. He got the computer and the full-ride scholarship so my $250 was well spent. I will do the same for my daughter with a score within her reach.

emmeliza.cabanero said...

I guess my kids were able to figure out that eating at their favorite restaurant for dinner was how they had been 'rewarded' for getting good grades. This way, the whole family celebrated achievement! But I never used cash to reward kids for their good grades. (I already have used the cash to pay the restaurant bill!)