Big City – Students Getting Cash Carrots May Learn Wrong Lessons

by Scott Smith

Remember New York City’s plan to reward students who excelled with cellphones? That plan fell by the wayside, not because so many people thought it was absurd — after all, cellphones are not allowed in New York City Schools — but because the project’s guru, the Harvard economist Roland Fryer, decided to apply his energies elsewhere not long after the project began.

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The plan seems to have had at least some ripple effect: Starting in February, the Visiting Nurse Service of New York will begin a pilot program to try to combat Type 1 diabetes in young people by offering more personalized health care — and to the young people, ages 11 to 17, who enroll, they are offering specially programmed BlackBerrys.

The Blackberrys are, to some extent, a hard, cold incentive: participate in this diabetes care management program, and get a hot gadget. But the BlackBerrys will have been programmed specifically to help young people monitor their health, so that instead of writing in some notebook what they’re eating and how they feel, the young people can do it on their phones, looking like they’re blithely texting a friend instead of trying to avoid the emergency room. The phones function like personal coaches, automatically turning on if a child turns it off after receiving one of the preprogrammed prompts, say, to check blood sugar.

Why is it that this project seems inherently worthwhile, while the idea of giving cellphones to students in exchange for good grades evokes, in so many of us, a visceral objection? It may be that for young people with diabetes, the BlackBerrys are not just an expensive gold star, but an active tool used toward reaching the goal of better health.

“They remove a hassle in the way of something worthwhile,” says Daniel Pink, the author of a new book called “Drive,” which explores 40 years of research on motivation. Give people money to give blood, and fewer do, he said (presumably because low pay diminishes the reward of doing something selfless); but give them time off from work to do it — remove an obstacle — and more do.

It’s not surprising that New York, which sees itself as the financial capital of the world, has been gung-ho on incentives for students, from the cellphone program to the $50 some fourth graders received for acing standardized tests, to the $1,000 that high schoolers could get for every 5 they got on an Advanced Placement exam. A two-year reward pilot program overseen by the Department of Education has ended, and it is now awaiting an evaluation.

I thought about those programs when I recently read a study that found that children who get sweets for eating their vegetables tend to value sugary treats more than kids whose parents do not use that system — their sense of sweets as something to value is reinforced by the very fact that it’s being given to them as a reward. It may be that giving children cash rewards — or material ones, like hip cellphones — is not merely reflecting the empty values that landed us in financial trouble, nationwide; disturbingly, that kind of system may actively be reinforcing them.

Giving young people money for testing well, it would seem, sends them on a path that could demand ever more money to keep up their motivation. As Mr. Pink puts it, when you pay children money to study, it equates school with “working at a fast food restaurant — something only a chump would do for free.” Pay fourth graders to study, and you had better be prepared to pay them forever — it’s like setting up an educational exploding adjustable rate mortgage, a shackling scheme that promises the acquisition of something valuable in some sketchy, roundabout way. And what happens if the money runs out?

REACH, the program that rewards students for scoring well on Advanced Placement exams, now gives students only $500 for getting a five on the tests, instead of $1,000 — such are their finances — but the number of students enrolled in their prep classes has increased. That’s surely good news. The preceding classes’ enthusiasm has surely helped lend the program a patina of cool that makes up for the diminishing money.

But if money is the only thing we can think of to make education cool, we may end up with another generation overloaded with people, educated and not, whose ambition is limited to the goal of cash, and at all costs.

Using technology to manage young people’s health care, and possibly health care costs? That all sounds very 2010. Giving a kid a costly gadget or cash to get good grades? Somehow, suddenly, that all sounds very pre-crash.

Sign in to Recommend Next Article in New York Region (16 of 19) » A version of this article appeared in print on January 19, 2010, on page A22 of the New York edition.

Posted via web from S. MacKay Smith’s Notes