12/28/2010 12:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Response to 'Cash for Grades'

The great thing about education currently is that it is provoking ideas, thoughts and suggestions from the wider community -- and that community comprises not only of educators, teachers, and researchers but of course students themselves. Kudos to Jingwei Zhang who posted Cash Rewards To Help His Classmates Graduate.

Coincidentally this blog about rewards for grades came the day after I wrote about the same topic in the Washington Post's The Answer Sheet -- although my take on the subject was somewhat opposite.

The bottom line unfortunately is that cash rewards generally don't work and, if they do, they only work for the short term rather than inspiring kids to learn for the long haul. Chicago, New York and Detroit were part of one of the largest studies so far on the gains that can be expected from cash rewards for students. In New York alone they paid out $1.5 million to more than 8,320 students. But as the lead researcher Harvard University economist Roland G. Fryer stated, "Providing incentives for achievement-test scores has no effect on any form of achievement we can measure".

There were some gains for rewarding 'input' -- attendance, homework, etc. -- but not the 'output' they were measuring: standardized test scores. "In stark contrast to simple economic models," Fryer said, "our results suggest that student incentives increase achievement when the rewards are given for inputs to the educational production function, but incentives tied to output are not effective."

He also noted: "If students lack the structural resources or knowledge to convert effort to measurable achievement or if the production function has important complementarities out of their control (effective teachers, engaged parents, or peer dynamics, e.g.) then incentives will have very little impact."

In shorthand what that means is, if we are trying to use this method of paying cash in order to close the achievement gap for already under-resourced, under-supported students, it's not likely to work. Students need the support structures as much or if not more than they want the reward.

A similar finding came out from a joint study from the University of Toronto and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As the CEO of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, the organization that released the results, surmised: "Our study and others to date indicate that this particular strategy has minimal effect, if any, in those situations where it has been tested."

While looking at out-of-the-box ways to motivate or reengage students is exactly what we want, cash payment may initially seem like a good idea but may not reach the kids we want to reach nor instill long term learning habits.

So why aren't our students learning? Why aren't they motivated? Even though, as Jingwei Zhang put it, education "is the key to the future" and primary reason "why students even go to school"?

Here's an idea: Maybe it's not that the bribe or the punishment isn't sufficient but that what we are asking them to isn't meaningful or engaging. Maybe it's not relevant to their lives and maybe we are not doing a good enough job in making the links between what's being taught and what is needed for future success.

According to a recent survey of student engagement, the answer to this may be yes. The 2010 High School Survey of Student Engagement found that 49 percent of students surveyed said they were "bored every day." A staggering 17 percent of the 42,000 students surveyed said they were "bored in every class."

We are living in an age when we want quick and easy answers to problems. We want choices that are yes or no and right or wrong answers to all our problems. Unfortunately, sometimes the quick answer and the desire to get a yes or no response may not be what is needed.

Rather than looking for detailed, nuanced answers to difficult, complex issues, we frequently resort to the ultimate yes or no or right or wrong choice -- should we bribe or punish? Should we choose the carrot or the stick?

But take a step back. The carrot or the stick analogy refers to making someone do something they don't want to do. It's about making a mule move and, hence, pull a cart. And the question raised is: Do we get the best results for an unpleasant chore by punishment (hitting with a stick) or by bribing (the lure of a carrot)?

Should we really be demeaning education to this level? Rather than trying to find new and better carrots and sticks to force or bribe students to pay attention and do their work, why don't we look instead at what we are trying -- and how we are trying -- to teach them?

Maybe a starting point for engaging students shouldn't be discussing how can we make them do what they don't want to do, but instead what we can do to make education more engaging. Maybe our first reaction shouldn't be coercion, but reflection on what is and is not meaningful, engaging, or purposeful.