For years, parents and educators have debated whether it is effective to pay students to improve their grades or behavior. Recently, Harvard economist Roland Fryer set out to test the practice.
Starting in 2007, Fryer paid 18,000 students in New York City, Dallas, Chicago and Washington, D.C., to improve their academic performances. Some of the students – who ranged from fourth- to ninth-graders -- were paid for high grades or for excelling on tests; others were paid for good behavior and school attendance. Some second-graders were paid for each book they read.
Though about $6.3 million was spent, the results were mixed. While early indications were promising, results from standardized tests found that paying students for good test scores or good grades seemed to have little or no effect. However, the students who were paid for simple tasks like attendance and good behavior did boost their standardized reading scores. The biggest gains were seen in the younger students who were paid for reading books -- not only did they perform better on standardized reading tests, but they also did better the succeeding year, when they weren’t being paid.
Parents have long used incentives to exact certain behaviors from their children, either better grades or manners or for tasks like cleaning the garage. Teachers often offer small treats or trinkets for good behavior or high test performances.
But are these incentives effective in the long term?
Dr. Eric Scott, a psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children, says it’s important to distinguish between bribes and rewards. “A reward is legal,” he says, “and a bribe is illegal. But the really big difference is the bribe happens before someone does something and a reward comes after a task has been accomplished.”
Bribes are rarely effective, Scott says. Kids who are bribed often become hooked on bribery and expect them before they do any desirable behavior. They also can take the money and run.
“If the parent gave the child money for grades or for a chore that they had to do, then the child can still decide not to do it and then keep the bribe,” Scott explained.
On the other hand, rewards can be effective tools, he said. “Rewards can encourage people to accomplish tasks that they don’t want to do, and they can be a good incentive for people to start new behaviors or new habits.”
Kids are huge targets for both bribes and rewards. Parents and teachers offer students incentives – often candy or money – for good behavior or good grades. Siblings and peers offer bribes to younger children or each other to be quiet or to do a task.
KIPP Indianapolis, a charter middle school at 1740 East 30th Street, employs a unique incentive. Students earn “dollars” for their behavior and academic performance in each class. They receive a paycheck each Monday reflecting their performances during the previous week.
Dollars can accumulate to be used for rewards such as field trips. Small paychecks result in trips to a Making Better Choices class after school.
Some KIPP students view these paychecks as bribes, though according to Scott, they are rewards because they are awarded after the behavior is recorded.
Other bribes are more clear-cut. Some students say they give toys or candy to younger children to be quiet or to stop crying. Bribing adults is less common.
Marcellus Lawrence, 13, described one scenario. “It’s like when my mom tells me I can’t go to my friend’s house. … I’m like, ‘If I wash your feet for a month, can I go?’ … It works.”
Almost all of the KIPP students have received rewards, generally for academic reasons or good behavior.
Tyron Hampton, 12, has often been rewarded for good grades. “If I come home with A’s, (my mom) might take me to Game Stop, or she might get me something from the store that I want,” he said.
Marcellus has been rewarded for showing good judgment. “My mom says if I don’t hang around the wrong crowd, she’ll give me stuff that I need for exercise. And if I do hang around with the bad crowd, then she’ll take away all my games.”
Ramon Parrott, 13, says he doesn’t get bribed or rewarded at home but is often encouraged to excel. “I’m not going to call it bribe but my mama and my dad always told me, ‘I want you to be better than me,’ and so that gives me reason to try to excel. I have big dreams.”
In general, students find rewards more effective than bribes.
“I would rather have the reward because if I work my butt off and try to do something, I want it to pay off. I don’t want it to go to waste,” Ramon said.
As much as I like bribing, I’d have to say a reward because when you work really hard to do stuff, people notice,” agreed Latreesa Cummings, 12.
But kids find problems with incentives, too. Some students resent them because they are often given to unruly students to calm down. “They seem to bribe the bad students more. It seems like the good kids don’t get noticed,” Ramon said.
Additionally, negative feelings can rise if teachers reward a behavior that is expected of others.
“In math class, whoever passes the test first gets a piece of candy. Nobody should have to get a piece of candy just to pass a test. It should be automatic,” said Ramon.
Latreesa agreed. “Students should already be paying attention. They shouldn’t have to be bribed to pay attention or to learn things.”
Scott says rewards are good motivators for kids who are uninterested or are struggling with behavioral problems. However, he says giving recognition to or doing activities with kids is more effective than granting cash or gifts. Rewards are temporary, but recognition can have a lasting effect.
“Some kids work really well for praise or for positive attention or a reward like an award,” he said. “Cold hard cash isn’t the most important reward for some people.”
Reporters Jade Poynter, 13, Nyssa Qiao, 11 and Joshua Segaran, 13 contributed to this story.
Copyright 2010 Y-Press