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.
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.
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.
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.
Of course the material motive is easily corrupted into greed. But that’s no argument for denying it. All motives are easily corrupted. The moral and developmental motive for education, for example, is easily corrupted into priggishness, arrogance, and self-righteousness — as anyone can find out by reading the schemes for education proposed in Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Ethics, or, especially, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile. (“Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them . . . we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses.” C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man)
If you’re still not convinced, ask yourself: How different is this from giving out prizes in competitions? And where has there ever been a civilization that didn’t reward success tangibly?
But there is one caveat I would offer to my support. Since large numbers of parents do in fact object strongly and persistently to this practice, it’s not good that it should be imposed on everyone without their consent. Not only does that violate the consciences of parents, it sends mixed signals to students and undermines their respect for parental authority. So it would be preferable if parents who object to tangible rewards for success weren’t required to send their students to school systems that offer them.
Yes, that’s right; all roads lead to Rome. This issue, like every other education issue, becomes, if you think about it long enough, yet another argument for you know what.