We Won!

September 29, 2010

I have no idea why a bunch of ed reformers are so gloomy.  Matt has already observed how Rick Hess and Mike Petrilli can’t seem to enjoy the moment when ed reform ideas go mainstream.  Now Liam Julian is joining the poopy parade, lamenting that the new crop of naive reformers are doomed to fail just as past ones have, and “it never works out.” And continuing the gloomy theme, Rick is worrying that school choice (in the form of vouchers) over-promised and under-delivered, losing the support of people like Sol Stern.

That may be, but as a graduate student observed to me today, choice (in the form of vouchers) may have lost Sol Stern, but choice (in the form of charters) just gained Oprah, the Today Show, and the Democratic Party platform.    Overall, he thought that was a pretty good trade, especially since he had to look up who Sol Stern was.

Let’s review.  It is now commonly accepted among mainstream elites — from Oprah to Matt Lauer to Arne Duncan — that simply pouring more money into the public school system will not produce the results we want.  It is now commonly accepted that the teacher unions have been a significant barrier to school improvement by protecting ineffective teachers and opposing meaningful reforms.  It is now commonly accepted that parents should have a say in where their children go to school and this choice will push traditional public schools to improve.  It is now commonly accepted that we have to address the incentives in the school system to recruit, retain, and motivate the best educators.

These reform ideas were barely a twinkle in Ronald Reagan’s eye three decades ago and are now broadly accepted across both parties and across the ideological spectrum.  This is a huge accomplishment and rather than being all bummed out that everyone else now likes the band that I thought was cool before anyone ever heard of it, we should be amazed at how much good music there is out there.

We won!  At least we’ve won the war of ideas.  Our ideas for school reform are now the ones that elites and politicians are considering and they have soundly rejected the old ideas of more money, more money, and more money.

Now that I’ve said that, I have to acknowledge that winning the war of ideas is nowhere close to winning the policy war.  As I’ve written before, the teacher unions are becoming like the tobacco industry.  No one accepts their primary claims anymore, but that doesn’t mean they don’t continue to be powerful and that people don’t continue to smoke.  The battle is turning into a struggle over the correct design and implementation of the reform ideas that are now commonly accepted.  And the unions have shown that they are extremely good at blocking, diluting, or co-opting the correct design and implementation of reforms.

Rick Hess correctly demonstrated how important design and implementation are almost two decades ago in his books, Spinning Wheels and Revolution at the Margins.   And it is always useful for him and others to remind reformers of the dangers that lurk in those union-infested waters.  But for a moment can’t we just bask in the glow of our intellectual victory — even if our allies are a new crop of naive reformers?

(edited for typos)

Even I Agree – This Is a Bribe

October 22, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Last month I got into a little back-and-forth with Fordham’s Liam Julian after we simultaneously published columns about the practice of financially rewarding students for good performance – mine for and his against.

Well, as a token of goodwill, here’s a form of “performance pay” for students that even I will agree is an impermissible bribe. Baylor has been caught paying students for good SAT scores. The catch: it’s paying them to go back and retake the SAT after they’ve gained admission, so that the statistical profile of incoming freshmen at Baylor will look better.

“I think we goofed on that,” said a spokesman. Gosh, do ya think?

What’s the difference between rewarding student excellence and bribing students? In our exchange last month, Julian tried to outline what he thought was the difference between a legitimate “reward” and an illegitimate “bribe.” I wasn’t buying his definition but offered no alternative of my own (I had been using the word “bribe,” in sarcastic scare quotes, to refer to financial rewards for student performance, so I wasn’t in a good position to make the distinction systematically). I’ll take a crack at it now, and to make things even more fun I’ll add a third category.

I understand a “reward” to be an incentive for a certain activity that arises organically from the nature of the activity itself. An Olympic runner is not “greedy” and “mercenary” for wanting to win the race; victory is the reward for (i.e. the natural fulfillment or fruition of) athletic excellence. Nor is he necessarily greedy for wanting to win a shiny gold medal and stand on the top level of the victor’s podium and thrill to the cheers of the crowd, because the medal and the podium and the cheering are rightly taken as tokens and recognitions of his victory – he can desire them not for their own sake, but as embodiments of the victory. (Of course he may also desire them for their own sake, to gratify his vanity, which is wrong – but that is his fault, not theirs. They remain the natural and proper “rewards” of his excellence even if he doesn’t desire them as such.)

Note that while we usually use the word “reward” only in the context of good behavior, in this sense a “reward” can attach just as easily to bad behavior as to good. For example, those who behave greedily sometimes end up making money as a result, but we don’t call this a “bribe” as such. It’s just the natrual result of his behavior. This is what the New Testament means when it repeatedly emphasizes that those who sin “have already recieved their reward.”

On the other hand, we can provide incentives for behavior that do not arise organically from the nature of the behavior itself. Here I see two categories.

If the act of providing the incentive does not change the nature of the behavior itself, we call that simply “pay.” Managing a business, or laying pipe, or providing heath care, or teaching (or blogging about education reform) is not a different activity simply because one recieves a salary to do it, which is why the salary is called “pay” rather than a bribe. And note that, just as with “rewards” for bad behavior, there is also “pay” for bad behavior; we don’t speak of mobsters “bribing” hit men to kill people.

Whereas if providing the incentive changes the nature of the activity, that incentive is a bribe. Signing a contract with a vendor, supporting a change to government policy, or (in the Baylor case) retaking the SAT becomes a different kind of activity when you’re doing it for money as opposed to when you’re doing it for the right reasons. The corporate officer who steers contracts to a vendor who is giving him kickbacks is not engaged in business for his company, but rather defrauding it. The politician who supports a bill because he’s getting paid under the table is not serving his constituents, but oppressing and exploiting them. And the Baylor student who retakes the SAT because the school pays him is not seeking educational excellence, but collaborating in fraud.

As C.S. Lewis once put it, a man who marries a woman for money is mercenary, but a man who marries a woman because he loves her is not, even though in both cases he is “getting what he wants” by marrying her; marriage is the natural fulfilment of love but it is not the natural fulfilment of acquisitiveness, and marrying someone out of acquisitiveness changes the nature of the act (or so some of us believe).

(One potential weakness of my definition of a “bribe” is that the word implies moral turpitude, and it’s concievable there may be incentives for an activity that change the nature of the activity without creating moral turpitude. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, though. But if there are any such incentives, we would need a different word for them.)

The question before us, then, is whether paying students to learn changes the nature of the activity of learning. I think the answer is no, for the reasons I stated in my Pajamas Media column:

These days, if a child asks why he should care about doing well in school, what kind of answer does he get? He gets the same answer from every source: from parents, teachers, and school administrators; from movies and TV shows; from public service announcements, social service programs, and do-gooder philanthropies; from celebrities, athletes, and actors; from supporters and opponents of education reform; from everybody.

The answer is always some version of: you need to do well in school in order to have prosperity later in life.

Well, if you scrape away the sanctimony, what is this but a “bribe” on a colossal scale? Why is it vulgar and horrible to tell kids that if they pass their APs they’ll get a $500 check, but noble and uplifting to tell kids that if they pass their APs they’ll be able to get a better job five years from now?

Let’s quit kidding ourselves that it’s somehow shocking that somebody would come up with the idea of paying students to do well in school. For at least a decade, money is more or less the only motive we’ve been offering students to do well in school. We’ve just been insisting that the payoff has to come later in life. But morally, the timeline doesn’t make a difference. If it’s OK to pay someone five years from now to do something today, then it’s OK to pay him today, too.

If learning isn’t learning when the student is motivated by his own material well-being, then there probably is no such thing as learning and never has been.

Not that I think that’s the only motive students have, or should have:

Now, as it happens, I would prefer that the cash motive not be the only reason we offer kids to do well in school. I think our culture has been remiss in emphasizing education as an opportunity to become a better person, both morally (through character formation, a concern that the government school system seems to have largely dropped or subordinated, though private schools make it a top concern) and developmentally (because those who learn more and develop their capacities more fully have richer, more blessed lives).

But I also think that denying the presence of a strong financial motive in education is a fool’s errand. Kids will always care about how their education impacts their material well-being. And so they should — looking after one’s own material well-being is a good and natural concern.

Moreover, kids aren’t fully able to appreciate the moral and developmental motives for education until well after their education is complete. The 30-year-old, looking back, may well say, “If I hadn’t worked hard in school and had such great teachers, my personal character and my capacity for a fully human life would have been infinitely poorer.” But try explaining that to a ten-year-old.

Concern for one’s own material well-being is one of the natural motives for education, always has been, and always will be. Admitting this doesn’t negate the other motives.

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

September 10, 2008

(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.

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