Bribes-for-books scheme works

Bribing students can work — under some conditions — argues Amanda Ripley in Time. Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr. raised private funds to run an experiment in Chicago, Dallas, Washington and New York. In each city, he ran a different reward model, with an unpaid control group.

The cheapest model was the biggest success: Dallas second graders earned $2 every time they read a book and showed their comprehension on a computerized quiz. The average student earned $14 for seven books per year. Reading scores soared “as if those kids had spent three extra months in school,” Ripley writes. Grades went up too. The effect was greater than far costlier ideas, such as lowering class size or enrolling children in preschool. The rewards stopped the next year, but students continued to do well.

Washington, D.C. middle schoolers were paid for “five different metrics, including attendance and good behavior.” Reading scores rose.

In Chicago, ninth graders got cash for good grades ($50 for an A, $35 for a B and $20 for a C), up to $2,000 a year. Students attended class more often and got better grades, but didn’t improve on end-of-the-year tests.

The New York experiment paid fourth graders and seventh graders to do well on tests. It had no effect.

Fryer thinks students responded more strongly when they understand how to earn rewards and felt they could control their earnings.

(D.C.) kids with a history of serious behavioral problems saw the biggest gains in test scores overall. Their reading scores shot up 0.4 standard deviations, which is roughly the equivalent of five additional months of schooling.

Kids may respond better to rewards for specific actions because there is less risk of failure. They can control their attendance; they cannot necessarily control their test scores.

The high-scoring KIPP charter schools reward students “for actions they can control — getting to school on time, participating in class and having a positive attitude,” Ripley writes. They use the “money” to pay for supplies at the school store.

Recognition, like punishment, works best if it happens quickly. So KIPP schools pay their kids every week. (Interestingly, the two places Fryer’s experiment worked best were the ones where kids got feedback fast — through biweekly paychecks in Washington and through passing computerized quizzes in Dallas.)

. . .  KIPP fifth-graders get a lot of prizes like pencils; high school kids can earn freedoms — like the privilege of listening to their iPods at lunch.

There’s some evidence that rewarding kids for doing the right thing erodes their motivation to do right without a reward. But if we can raise reading levels for $14 per kid . . . It’s tempting to bribe the little kids. They’re cheap.

About Joanne


  1. SuperSub says:

    “There’s some evidence that rewarding kids for doing the right thing erodes their motivation to do right without a reward.”

    And there’s tons of evidence that individuals fail to gain any motivation unless there is first an extrinsic benefit offered. When I was in 11th grade, I was one of the few students that my math teacher gave a ridiculously hard homework assignment to do over Christmas break.

    I did it…took me about 8 hours to do. Why did I do it? No grades were given. I did it because I developed intrinsic motivation for school assignments through years of stickers, candy, and other perks that were given to me by my elementary and middle school teachers.

  2. From my blog on Apri 10:

    (Postscript:I hope those computerized tests weren’t AR tests. Students are notorious for figuring out how to pass those without reading the books. Been there, been annoyed by that.)

  3. Deirdre Mundy says:

    It makes sense to bribe for books in the early grades (though I’ve found stickers are as good as cash! 🙂 ) Once a child learns the basic rules of phonics, she needs to PRACTICE so that reading becomes automatic–

    Older kids can enjoy reading because of the stories, but in the beginning, reading is really HARD, and there’s very little pay off for struggling through a book that your mother could have read you in a quarter of the time.

    We’re using stickers for time with my daughter. For every 10 minutes she spends reading, she gets one sticker. Then she can count her stickers and find out how much time she’s spent reading. (I told her when she’s spent 100 hours, she’ll be pretty darned good.) I think the time method is more effective than a per-book method because it takes into account that some books are more challenging than others.

    But yes, little kids are cheap bribes. If I paid her a quarter a book, it would be nirvana. (But stickers are cheaper!)

  4. Chartermom says:

    I would think what this program does is allow economically disadvantaged kids get what many middle class kids already get — rewards for positive academic behavior. I didn’t pay my kids for report cards when they were younger but a good report card was celebrated with a dinner out at the restaurant of their choosing. And this year when I wanted my middle schooler to kick it up a notch I made receiving a cellphone contingent on “straight A’s”.

    Grades alone won’t do it for most younger kids. My high schooler is just now starting to “get” the value of good grades as he realizes that whether or not he can get into (an extrinsic reward) the college of his choice will depend on those grades.

    I’m with Joanne — $14. a kid seems like a pretty cheap solution to raising reading performance and I’m sure there are probably ways to lower that cost while still giving value to the kids.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by JoanneLeeJacobs. JoanneLeeJacobs said: New blog post: Bribes-for-books scheme works […]

  2. […] Bribes-for-books scheme works « Joanne Jacobs […]