God Bless You Mr. Klein — For Teaching Us about Extrinsic Motivation

Or how I stopped worrying and started to love extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivators, carrots and sticks, are so often the punching bag of educators. We’ve seen educators do a lot to motivate their clients and students intrinsically, but we have not seen anyone use extrinsic motivators. And its true, intrinsic motivators are inherently more resilient, general, and powerful for motivation, but does that mean we should never use extrinsic motivators at all? As luck would have it, there was recently one of the largest educational research projects ever undertaken concerning this exact question. And it just so I happened that I knew the guy in charge.

I first met Joel Klein in the kitchen of his expansive Park Street apartment. From the window of his high-ceilinged kitchen I could have shot an arrow into central park. Klein was at that time the Chancellor of New York City Department of Education. He came out of his living room shirtless with a towel around his waist and followed by a young tan man, white-shorted, white-poloed, and blond who turned out to be his massage therapist.

I knew Klein wielded power as a lawyer and as Chancellor of the newly centralized Department of Education of New York City, but I didn’t truly understand his position until he referred to his boss — billionaire, 3-term mayor of the big apple Michael Bloomberg — as “Mikey”.

The New York City school system is the largest public school system in the United States. It servers over 1.1 million learners. It’s… big, unwieldily, and full of entrenched interests.

Since he lacked the proper background in education for the job, when “Mikey” appointed him to the position Klein had to seek a special waiver to take the job; a waiver he got and that kicked off 8 years of sweeping reforms of the hulking school system. In classic Bloomberg mayorial style, Klein brought a lot of Wall Street verve to the Main Street of public education. Over 8 years from 2002 to 2010 Klein overhauled elementary education with a new city-wide curriculum, abolished the practice of passing learners along despite being academically unprepared (termed “social promotion”), and dramatically raised educator pay.

Five years later, Klein’s legacy is mixed — graduation rates are higher than before 64% (up from 49%), but college-readiness is flat around 33%. In 2010 Klein resigned from his post as Chancellor and took a job working as an executive for Rupert Murdock’s News Corp.

Much of what Klein proposed or attempted was controversial, but perhaps nothing was more controversial than his program to pay learners for performance. The idea came from the work of a Harvard economist named Roland G. Fryer whom Klein hired in 2007 to act as “chief equality officer” of the NYC Department of Education.

Klein charged Professor Fryer to find out how to incentivize children to learn and improve achievement of all learners but especially the standardized test scores of minority learners. Fryer, from a minority background himself, constructed a plan to pay fourth through seventh graders up to $500 for good scores on their yearly standardized tests. $500 is a lot of money for a 13 year old, but pennies to the Department of Education. If it worked, the plan would be a very affordable way to improve education.

Let’s take a quick step back. Why did they want to pay learners at all? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to have them learn the old fashion way — for free?

The truth is: kids work for cheap. And there was behavioral economic research suggested that financial incentives might improve the lowest performing and at risk populations of learners.

Fryer was particularly curious if paying students would reduce “Stereotype Threat” — a well researched phenomenon where people live up to the stereotypes they are put into. In a famous study, groups of asian women were asked to do a math test. If reminded that they were women before doing the test, they performed worse. If reminded that they were Asian, they did better. Paying students, Fryer thought, might run interference on stereotype threat that he believed was hurting outcomes of at risk and underserved populations.

If it worked, Fryer’s plan would be far cheaper to pay learners to learn than to invest in educators’ salaries, professional development, new learning solutions, new text books, etc. Just paying learners to learn might be the cheapest solution. If it worked.

And it did. Or it did. Sorta. Let’s look carefully at what Klein and Fryer found out and see if their research sheds light on how exactly extrinsic rewards can be used effectively to motivate children.

In NYC Fryer was testing paying learners to improve standardized test scores. There he found out that financial incentives did not move the needle on standardized tests further than the margin of error of his statistical models. So paying learners doesn’t raise standardized test scores. Bummer. However, the NYC experiment was only one experiment in Fryer’s sprawling educational incentive laboratory. Over the same time period learners in Dallas learners could earn $2 per book they read, in DC learners were paid for attendance, behavioral and some performance, in Houston learners could earn $2 for completing learning objectives in mathematics, and in Chicago they got cash for grades: $50 for an A, $35 for a B, and $20 for a C.

So cash for academic performance didn’t raise standardized tests scores in NYC but what about the other academic areas? How did the other cities do?

Over all, Fryer found that cash incentives are not great at improving academic “outputs” such as test scores, grades and performance, but paying learners did improve academic “inputs” such as attendance, behavior, completing mathematics objectives and reading books. So you can pay a learner to study and attend class, but you can’t pay them to score higher on their test.

Fryer’s conclusions accord with my personal experience. When I was a kid if I finished reading a book my dad and I would go to Borders Books and he would buy me a new book as a sort of reward. If I finished that one, I got another. Getting the reward of another bright new $6.99 book kept me champing at the bit and finishing books every week. I read shelves and shelves of books this way mainly scifi and fantasy. My dad probably thought $42 a month was a low price to pay to have a ever more literate son. Later in high school I received $20 per A ($0 for anything else), but it didn’t really motivate me. I just did as well as I could day to day and then the money was sorta a bonus at grade time.

Fryer also found interesting effects across gender and race. First of all, an extrinsic incentive doesn’t help girls, it stresses them out. But it disproportionally helps boys. Financial incentives for the female learners had almost no effect and sometimes a slightly negative effect because it increased the level of pressure and stress around completing tasks and taking tests. Minorities also fared slightly better with financial incentives.

So you can pay learners and they will show up more, be better behaved, and complete math and reading assignments, but is there a risk to paying learners to show up, behave, and complete assignments? The theory says “No” there isn’t risk. The incentives will create study habits and life patterns that will continue as the learner ages. My dad stopped buying me books when I went to college, but that didn’t stop me reading. I read more than ever in college. The extrinsic motivation I got when I was younger built in the habit of reading into my day-to-day life. Could this work for everyone? Do the incentives have to be cash? What about praise and gratitude? Or are the self-determination theorists right and any extrinsic rewards set the wrong standard and prevent learners from learning for learning’s sake?