Good Schools Don’t Reward Students . . . Except When They Do

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Last week I ran a column on Pajamas Media defending the practice of providing students with tangible rewards, including money, for academic achievement. At almost the same time that went live, Fordham’s latest Gadfly came out with a column by Liam Julian attacking the practice.

In his column, Julian wrote that a “recalcitrant youngster . . . requires strict discipline, not bribes. David Whitman’s fine new book, Sweating the Small Stuff, illumines the wonders such discipline can work.”

To start with, I feel perfectly comfortable juxtaposing Julian’s paean to the stick with my defense of the carrot: “To train students at all, you need to motivate them primarily with something that they understand. That means either ‘bribes’ or punishments for failure. Bribes are the more humane option.” I didn’t intend that to mean that there should be no discipline – of course student misconduct requires punishment – but discipline should not be the motivator for success.

Nor is it, I believe, in the schools profiled by Sweating the Small Stuff. I think that in these schools, the real motivator is promising kids they’ll have a better, more prosperous, more successful life if they get with the program. And, as I argued in my column, promising kids prosperity later in life if they study hard now is not really different, in principle, from giving them tangible rewards now. The only difference is the time lag.

More important, I thought Julian’s remark was a little funny, seeing how the “neo-paternalist” schools praised by Fordham’s Sweating the Small Stuff rely so heavily on providing kids with immediate tangible rewards for success. KIPP schools even give kids a weekly allowance, which is reduced if they don’t behave.

I had planned to write a post this morning making this point to Julian. But it appears that Michelle Rhee, whose plan to establish rewards for success in DC is what set off Julian’s original article, has beaten me to it. On Flypaper, Julian writes:

I’m told that Michelle Rhee, who moments ago wrapped up a “Reporter Roundtable” here at the Fordham offices (I knew I noticed a soft glow emanating from our conference room), defended her plan to pay students for right behavior by pulling out the KIPP Card.

Julian is not impressed:

First, let’s make the obvious distinction between KIPP dollars and American dollars, the former being valid tender only at KIPP-operated enterprises that stock wholesome inventory and the latter easily traded for 64-ounce buckets of cola and pornographic magazines. To be clear: There is a not insignificant difference between rewarding 12-year-olds with school supplies and cutting them each month a $100 check (as Rhee’s plan would do), which they can spend on whatever savory or unsavory products or activities they please.

But KIPP dollars are good for more than “school supplies.” For example, kids don’t get to go on big school trips to fun destinations – trips the kids really want to go on – if they haven’t got enough money to pay for it. So Julian isn’t quite playing fair here – KIPP does reward students with things they want.

And that’s not even the real problem. The real problem is that Julian is tacitly conceding the main point he defended in his original article: that kids need discipline, not bribes. Now, apparently, the new line is that it’s perfectly fine to provide kids with tangible rewards for success as long as you do it in the right way.

Well . . . OK then! So much for the position that all these kids really need is a good hard smack of “discipline.” Turns out they need tangible rewards, too. Julian just objects to what kind of reward Rhee wants to give them. That’s a carrot of another color.

Sure enough, Julian goes on to insist that some tangible rewards are “bribes” and others are not:

Second, Rhee’s plan is bribery and KIPP’s is not. To be clear: Rhee’s plan is engineered such that D.C. pupils who habitually miss class and refuse to do their work may, encouraged by offers of payment, deign to act as they already should. At a KIPP school, a consistent truant who balked at books wouldn’t be paid, wouldn’t be bribed—he’d be disciplined and maybe expelled. KIPP uses its KIPP Dollars as rewards for the good behavior that is already expected, not as an incentive to generate such behavior that wouldn’t otherwise be present. KIPP Dollars are simply one reminder among many to pupils that they shouldn’t act out, that they should be conscientious and decorous.

So rewards are not bribes when they are used to reward good behavior, but they’re bribes when they are used to reward the absence of bad behavior? I’m afraid Julian is simply manipulating the definitions of words in order to bring his condemnation of “bribes” into conformity with his praise of “neo-paternalism.” But you can’t redefine your way out of a flat contradiction. Obviously KIPP schools (and not only them) provide tangible rewards as a motivator. If this is OK with Julian, he should stop talking about “bribes” as though he had some kind of principled, across-the-board case to make against motivating students with rewards, and instead frame his case in terms of what kinds of rewards are acceptable in what kinds of situations.

Moreover, in a public school system where the kids have not chosen to be there, you don’t have the option of simply expelling everyone who doesn’t fall right into line. Obviously this is yet another argument for universal vouchers (if more arguments were needed), and someday when all students can choose where to go to school, schools (including government schools) will be able to demand more from the students who go there. But until that day comes, Rhee has to work with the system she’s got. Telling her to just do things the way KIPP does them is not a serious option for public schools.

Let me put that another way. In his original article, Julian said that rewarding students for showing up and behaving themselves is inappropriate because school attendance is supposed to be compulsory. Now he’s praising KIPP schools for expelling students if they don’t show up and behave themselves. Well, does he think public schools should start doing that? If so, then attendance at public school would no longer be compulsory, would it?

Does Julian really think that our approach to kids who don’t currently want to show up and behave themselves should be to tell them to stop showing up? If not, what does he propose to do to change their motivation, if not rewarding them for changing their behavior?

What this all really comes down to is the difference between coercion and choice. You can change people’s behavior by offering them something they want in return for doing what you want, or else by brute force. In terms of both effectiveness and ethics, rewards beat brute force eleven times out of ten.

4 Responses to Good Schools Don’t Reward Students . . . Except When They Do

  1. Greg’s point that “promising kids prosperity later in life if they study hard now is not really different, in principle, from giving them tangible rewards now. The only difference is the time lag” is right on target. The problem is that low-income kids are more likely to have higher discount rates so that they are not sufficiently motivated by rewards later in life. Saying you’ll get a better job in one or two decades is not particularly effective with some disadvantaged students. Providing tangible rewards now addresses that problem and should have a disproportionate benefit for kids that are currently the most behind.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    In addition to more disadvantaged children having a higher “discount rate” – which is a good point that I hadn’t though of – there is also the simple fact that children don’t understand the higher, more noble purposes for education. As I wrote in my PJM column, the 30-year-old may well look back and say that his life was richer, more fulfilling, and more fully human because he studied hard in school, but try explaining that to a ten-year-old.

  3. Polytope says:

    The best evidence that young people highly discount the future comes from the relatively high rates of cigarette smoking among teenagers from ALL SOCIOECONOMIC strata (CDC Youth Behavioral Risk Survey is one source of data.) Anecdotally I am astounded
    by the number of upper middle class youth I see smoking at an almost exclusively white, mid sized, state land grant institution.

  4. I’ll believe that academics believe their own arguments against material incentives for learning when I see College of Education faculty strike for lower pay.

    Schools as they currently operate give many students no reason to do what schools require. School is designed by academics, by people who are good at school, by people who have spennt their entire lives in school. They imagine that the academic is the highest form of life on Earth and that everyone wants to be an academic. The tasks they assign and the incentives they offer do not appeal to many normal children. Training a mechanically or artistically inclined child for an academic career using a transcript as the incentive is like training a cat to swim using carrots as the reward.

    I suggest this explains a lot of the income-related test score gap and income-related drop-out rate.

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