Recently, you may have seen this big story from the Wall Street Journal on the increasing use of tangible rewards — “bribes,” some call them — for students who improve their academic performance. The Journal found programs paying out as much as $1,000 cash. And if you didn’t see it there, you’ve probably seen some similar hand-wringing story on the issue, especially since the rise of No Child Left Behind.
When you follow education policy closely, there are some recurring stories that you learn to expect over time. Some journalist for a major media outlet “discovers” the story and runs a big expose. We all wring our hands and worry. Then we all forget about it for a while, until some other journalist for some other major media outlet “discovers” the story all over again.
It’s like the holodeck malfunctioning on Star Trek. No matter how old it gets, you just know they’re gonna do it again before long. They can’t help it.
This is one of those holodeck stories. Schools have been experimenting with paying students for improved performance for decades. If it’s not cash, it’s MP3 players or pizza parties or any number of other things. Like it or hate it, it’s nothing new
This time, though, there’s some interesting new information that makes the story worth some attention. The Journal story notes a forthcoming article in Education Next, a top scholarly journal of education policy, with new empirical research showing positive effects from a Texas program paying cash bounties for passing AP scores. Six other states are moving to adopt similar programs.
The research on this issue is not enough to provide a firm basis for a conclusion. It’s not nearly as much as the extensive body of top-quality research supporting school vouchers, for example.
And, admit it — you don’t care about whether it works nearly as much as you care about whether it’s just inherently wrong. This policy is the sort of thing people respond to purely by visceral reaction.
If you’re one of those — and I suspect they’re the majority — whose visceral reaction to this sort of thing is negative, let me make a case for why it’s not wrong.