When Schools Bribe Kids


I have a story in today’s TIME Magazine about what happens when you pay kids to work hard in school. I got interested in this because, most of the time, schools operate in the dark—through trial and error, hunches and theories, year after year. The practices and assumptions have never been tested in a rigorous way. So I was intrigued to learn about this latest project of Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist who is dedicated to the radical notion of doing education research using the scientific method.

Fryer thought it would be interesting to see if paying kids cash money could help them perform better in school. So he and his team launched a massive, randomized experiment in Chicago, Dallas, DC and NYC to test the idea. They paid out $6.3 million in largely private money to 18,000 kids. They also tracked control groups whom they did not pay. The program generated a massive amount of buzz, but until now, no one knew if it was working.

Fryer agreed to share his results with me for the story. (His full academic paper, released just after the story came out, is here. Warning: PDF.) Almost as fascinating as the findings is his story of launching the experiment itself. You’d think he was trying to pay kids to lie, cheat and steal—not to learn. A wild tale.

But the best part was hanging out in the classrooms, talking to the kids about the experiment from the inside. They totally get it. They know that many of their teachers don’t approve of them being paid for coming to class; they know that their parents are skeptical; they know it won’t help some kids. And they totally dig it. They. Love. It. They want to earn more. The real problem is, as the story explains, they don’t always know how.

EducationAmanda Ripley