Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?

What motivates kids to work hard in school? The exclusive story of a national experiment in paying for performance that delighted children, offended adults and provoked death threats against the scientist

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Samantha Contis for TIME

From left: Rodney Thomas, Tyreke Johnson and Malik Harris, at Burroughs Education Center in Washington, look at their payment vouchers

In junior high school, one of my classmates had a TV addiction--back before it was normal. This boy--we'll call him Ethan--was an encyclopedia of vacuous content, from The A-Team to Who's the Boss?

Then one day Ethan's mother made him a bold offer. If he could go a full month without watching any TV, she would give him $200. None of us thought he could do it. But Ethan quit TV, just like that. His friends offered to let him cheat at their houses on Friday nights (Miami Vice nights!). Ethan said no.

One month later, Ethan's mom paid him $200. He went out and bought a TV, the biggest one he could find.

Since there have been children, there have been adults trying to get them to cooperate. The Bible repeatedly commands children to heed their parents and proposes that disobedient children be stoned to death or at least have their eyes picked out by ravens. Over the centuries, the stick (or paddle or switch) has lost favor, in most cases, to the carrot. Today the petty bribes--a sticker for using the toilet or a cookie for sitting still in church--start before kids can speak in full sentences.

In recent years, hundreds of schools have made these transactions more businesslike, experimenting with paying kids with cold, hard cash for showing up or getting good grades or, in at least one case, going another day without getting pregnant.

I have not met a child who does not admire this trend. But it makes adults profoundly uncomfortable. Teachers complain that we are rewarding kids for doing what they should be doing of their own volition. Psychologists warn that money can actually make kids perform worse by cheapening the act of learning. Parents predict widespread slacking after the incentives go away. And at least one think-tank scholar has denounced the strategy as racist. The debate has become a proxy battle for the larger war over why our kids are not learning at the rate they should be despite decades of reforms and budget increases.

But all this time, there has been only one real question, particularly in America's lowest-performing schools: Does it work?

To find out, a Harvard economist named Roland Fryer Jr. did something education researchers almost never do: he ran a randomized experiment in hundreds of classrooms in multiple cities. He used mostly private money to pay 18,000 kids a total of $6.3 million and brought in a team of researchers to help him analyze the effects. He got death threats, but he carried on. The results, which he shared exclusively with TIME, represent the largest study of financial incentives in the classroom--and one of the more rigorous studies ever on anything in education policy.

The experiment ran in four cities: Chicago, Dallas, Washington and New York. Each city had its own unique model of incentives, to see which would work best. Some kids were paid for good test scores, others for not fighting with one another. The results are fascinating and surprising. They remind us that kids, like grownups, are not puppets. They don't always respond the way we expect.

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