Can Children Be Paid to Learn?

Whether a child receives a traditional education or an alternative one, there is always a desire on the part of educators and parents to know just how much the child is learning.

bigstockphoto_Test_359164The child’s progress can be evaluated in many ways (observation, checklists, portfolios, self-assessment) but the easiest and most common ones have always been grades and tests. The debate rages on as to whether grades and test scores are an accurate picture of the child’s true understanding, but they produce data that can analyzed and categorized and because so many policy decisions rely on data, they continue to be the holy grail of student evaluation.

In the years since the No Child Left Behind act was passed, grades and test scores are routinely used to determine funding, bonuses for teachers, and even whether or not teachers keep their jobs and schools remain open.

In Montessori, we’ve generally rejected the traditional notion of evaluation, seeing grades as generally subjective and often unhelpful, and tests as being no more than a way to test how well the child can take a test. We’d rather have a child work repeatedly on a certain skill or concept until it’s mastered without having to worry about having their progress graded or tested.

Paying for Grades

In the public school realm, the need for high grades and test scores has produced sense of desperation among teachers and administrators, who are finding that children are not responding well to the traditional method of top-down education: the teacher at the front of the class, telling the children what to learn and when.

Rather than address the actual problems of top-down education – and seek out alternatives like Montessori, where education is child-led and individualized – many school districts have resorted to paying children cold hard cash to try and motivate them to do better in school.

While this has already been done for years informally, Harvard economist, Roland Fryer, Jr., recently decided to formalize it and conduct a scientific study on the results of paying children for improving their test scores.

The results of his experiment have been written up in a recent article in Time Magazine called Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School? (A better title I could not have chosen myself; kudos to the writer who did away with the less-offense “reward” and went straight to the very accurate “bribe”.)

The Economics of Education

Fryer and his team of researchers faced an uphill battle. Many schools that they approached about trying this program resisted. He received quite a bit of criticism from teachers, and from psychologists who’ve studied the negative effects of offering rewards for learning. Still, he persisted and was able to get 143 schools to participate.

The results of the year-long study were very interesting. Generally, offering children money for higher test scores did not cause a noticeable increase in higher test scores. Children were interested in the money, absolutely, but it didn’t lead to them being able to figure out how to do better on tests.

However, in one school district, offering the children money did work. In that school district, children were given money for reading books, not for getting better grades or higher test scores. However, children paid to read were able to get substantially higher grades.

“If you pay a kid to read books, their grades go up higher than if you actually pay a kid for grades,” Fryer says. “Isn’t that cool?” Yes, it is cool, and it is also a truth so basic that it’s shocking they needed a team of researchers and several million dollars to discover something teachers have known for decades: children who read more generally do better in school.

The mentality behind this kind of study generally assumes that the fact that children are getting low grades and low test scores because they lack motivation. If they’re more motivated, they’ll do better. What the study didn’t address at all was why American children are so unmotivated (if that is indeed the reason for poor grades and test scores). If the monetary compensation had worked better than it did, it would still be a band-aid over a much larger problem.

Can Kids Love Learning?

Fryer is aware that the problem goes deeper: “Kids should learn for the love of learning,” he says. “But they’re not. So what shall we do?” I found this quote fascinating, because it’s a great question but ultimately led him in the wrong direction to try and answer it.

What if the money used in the study as bribes had been used to turn traditional public school classrooms into Montessori classrooms? Classrooms where learning is “the lighting of a fire and not the filling of a bucket”, as the famous quote goes. Classrooms where the process is valued more than the product, where children learn because they love to do it and not because they are paid.

My experience as a Montessori teacher and homeschooler is that children absolutely can love learning without being bribed or paid. Shouldn’t researchers be looking at what does work and trying to emulate it?

The Real Lessons of School

John Taylor Gatto, former Teacher of the Year in the New York State school system, pondered the lessons he was forced to teach children in a monumental essay called The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher. These are some of the lessons he discovered children were being taught; no wonder they don’t love to learn:

“Only I [the teacher] determine what curriculum you will study. (Rather, I enforce decisions transmitted by the people who pay me). This power lets me separate good kids from bad kids instantly. Good kids do the tasks I appoint with a minimum of conflict and a decent show of enthusiasm.

Of the millions of things of value to learn, I decide what few we have time for. The choices are mine. Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.

Bad kids fight against this, of course, trying openly or covertly to make decisions for themselves about what they will learn. How can we allow that and survive as schoolteachers? Fortunately there are procedures to break the will of those who resist.

This is another way I teach the lesson of dependency. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. This is the most important lesson of all: that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives.”

Looking Beyond Bribes

You can pay children to stay in school, to get good grades, to get better test scores, to read more books. What you can’t pay them to do is love to learn for learning’s sake, which of course is so much more important than test scores (as Gatto rightly observes in his essay, test scores are almost meaningless in the real world anyway).

After reading about this study I felt a sense of despair. It seems that after all these years, after the failures of the public schools and the successes of alternative methods of education like Montessori and homeschooling, that traditional education and alternative education are moving further apart, not closer together.

I can only hope that the negative results of this study lead educators in a different direction when it comes to improving the public system of education in the United States.