Amanda Ripley

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Bribing Kids: The Politics

9th Apr 2010 posted in Education

I’ve been doing some TV interviews about this week’s TIME cover story on paying kids to learn in school. People keep asking me: “What will happen as a result of these findings?” If we know that paying kids to perform in school can work if it’s done right (and studied carefully), are more schools going to do it?

Well, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? It’s a no brainer—especially since this kind of program costs literally 1/10th of what other reforms with similar results cost. But the truth is, I really don’t know what will happen. We know that DC is continuing its program, as is Dallas, which is fantastic. And New York and Chicago continue to experiment with various kinds of incentives. But we don’t know if this research will translate into policy everywhere. And why don’t we know?

Because not everyone has the courage of Joel Klein, New York City’s Schools Chancellor. Klein let Harvard economist Roland Fryer into his school system three years ago to test what would happen if you paid kids to get good test scores. This is a big deal. It was controversial and no one knew if it would work. Using private funds, Fryer paid more than 8,000 kids some $1.5 million in New York, with Klein’s support.

As it turns out, the New York City model did not work—at least not in any way that’s easy to measure. The kids enjoyed the money, and they weren’t harmed in any way. But their standardized test scores and grades did not go up compared to kids who did not get paid.

But, and this is key: some of the other models (particularly in Dallas) did work. So Klein and the NYC schools took a risk so that the rest of the country could learn. The question is, will they? “You want to look at these things and expand those that are successful and certainly try to figure out why certain things didn’t work,” Klein told me. “What you don’t want to do is to resist all innovation on the theory that some of it might not work.”

In education, big policy decisions almost never get made according to evidence. Then again, there almost never is evidence. Now we have some. I look forward to seeing what happens.