Watch the Incentives

In Slate today, Alexandra Starr has a marvelous take on those notoriously low test scores among American high-schoolers:

You could conclude from these exams that American high-schoolers are ill-taught and ill-prepared for the competitive global economy. But what if you look at these tests like a capitalist rather than an educator? Nothing is at stake for kids when they take the international exams and the NAEP. Students don’t even learn how they scored. And that probably affects their performance. American teenagers, in other words, may not be stupid. It could be that when they have nothing to gain (or lose), they’re lazy.

True enough. In a similar vein, one of the most innovative proposals that I’ve ever heard for boosting scores—and, one would hope, actual learning—among students in low-performing schools also involves incentives. What if students simply got paid for getting good grades? Recently, Roland Fryer, Jr., an economist at Harvard has been trying to do just that with a pilot program in low-income public schools in the Bronx. Third-graders get $10 per good test, and seventh-graders $20. Some have objected that this would mean the death of “learning for its own sake,” but come on. A number of well-off parents reward their kids for doing well in school; this is no different, really.