Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Markets for studying

The NY Times reports on incentive programs designed to motivate students to study, and on some apparent controversy between economists and psychologists interested in the subject: Rewards for Students Under a Microscope.

My colleague Roland Fryer is organizing several of these incentive programs, in collaboration with schools in NYC, Washington DC, and Chicago, through Ed Labs at Harvard.

The Times story reports that some psychologists are skeptical, because of concerns that incentives may damage intrinsic motivation:
"Still, many psychologists warn that early data can be deceiving. Research suggests that rewards may work in the short term but have damaging effects in the long term.
"This kind of psychological research was popularized by the writer Alfie Kohn, whose 1993 book “Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes” is still often cited by educators and parents. Mr. Kohn says he sees “social amnesia” in the renewed interest in incentive programs.
“If we’re using gimmicks like rewards to try to improve achievement without regard to how they affect kids’ desire to learn,” he said, “we kill the goose that laid the golden egg.” "

But the story gives Roland the last word:
"Meanwhile, Dr. Fryer of Ed Labs urges patience in awaiting the economists’ take on reward systems. He wants to look at what happens over many years by tracking subjects after incentives end and trying to discern whether the incentives have an impact on high school graduation rates.
With the money being used to pay for the incentive programs and research, “every dollar has value,” he said. “We either get social science or social change, and we need both.”"


Simon Halliday said...

As far as I know, Roland Fryer's sample comprises inner city, historically disadvantaged kids for whom the level of intrinsic motivation may be quite low because of the context in which they find themselves (I'm thinking neighbourhood & peer effects à la Durlauf and others, as well as absolute low levels of opportunities). Is it not feasible, then, to create complementarities between extrinsic and intrinsic benefits and, therefore, do what the psychologists don't expect?

What was the composition of Kohn's sample like? Was it similar to that of Fryer's? If it wasn't, in fact if it was of a very limited scope, or predominantly of say white middle class kids, then I wouldn't be sure about its generalizability. But, I don't have access to the book and google searches haven't turned up anything worthwhile so far. Do you know any more about this?

Melody C. said...

I suggest you peruse Mr. Kohn's notes and bibliography which runs to 99 pages. A copy of his book is available from www.bookfinder.com for $4.05 and could be in your hands in a week. "Mr. Kohn's sample" encompasses decades of research. Many of the studies discussed are carbon copies of Mr. Fryer's proposal. You might not be convinced by his arguments but you should be impressed by the breadth of his exploration.

Anonymous said...

There is no question there is research that supports both sides of the debate. I look forward to Fryer's data and analysis after current programs are evaluated. Perhaps more focus should be placed on the power of "recognition", in various forms, to shape behavior...?