Friday, November 26, 2010

Paying Kids to Stay in School: Do the Ends Justifiy the Means?

Chris Spence, director of education of the Toronto District School Board, is a fascinating character. An ex-CFLer (Canadian Football League, for my American readers), he is an experienced educator with big ideas, and enthusiasm to spare. Since assuming the job of director of education for the TDSB in 2009, he has spearheaded a variety of unorthodox projects. Some, like the new Africentric Alternative School, have come to fruition; others—for example, a package of specialty schools, including single-sex elementary and middle schools, a sports academy and a choir school—he continues to fight for.

Spence is an avid Twitterer, with 1900 followers, many prominent educationists among them; he himself follows an eclectic group of educators, policy makers and politicians, as well as celebrities such as Kanye West and Justin Beiber.

I am one of Spence's 1900 followers, and I'm therefore the happy recipient of his often eccentric tweets about education and life. I don't always agree with his positions. I share neither his unbridled zeal for technology in school nor his belief that STEM should be the principal focus of contemporary education. But even when I disagree with him, I admire the passion he brings to his job, and his apparent openness to new educational ideas. However, once in a while he tweets something that gives me pause, and makes me worry that his passion may be morphing into a kind of Kool-Aid-drinking fervour. I especially feel this way when he tweets ideas that seem to be "ripped" from American media headlines about the so-called crisis in education.

An example: on November 14, he tweeted "Should we pay kids in our more disadvantaged communities to do well in school? Perhaps, as part of a poverty reduction scheme?"

Now, this is a practice that has been tried in the US and Mexico (and to a lesser extent in Canada) with varying degrees of success. (See here, here and here.) Some studies have found that financial incentives are effective, but most have found that they work best on the kids who need them least: motivated students perform better with cash incentives, unmotivated students do not. But whether the practice works or not is, in my view, completely beside the point. There are times when it is important to be clear about the values we as a society are trying to inculcate in our children. Times when we need to understand that the ends do not always justify the means. For example, it has been argued that the threat of corporal punishment in schools* deters some kids from misbehaving. A case could also be made—though I haven't actually heard anyone make it—that Ritalin should be given to all school children, not just those diagnosed with attention disorders. After all, Ritalin is a drug that helps kids focus; if it were dispensed to all children, classroom-management problems would undoubtedly melt away. Calm classrooms full of medicated kids would likely translate into better test scores, which is something education officials seem to care very much about these days.

But, of course, no one in education today is seriously advocating a return to the strap or medicating all children, because it is obvious that such practices violate the tenets of what we hold to be our values. So the question is, do we believe bribing children is right or wrong? In education, do we or don't we believe that intrinsic motivation on the part of children is superior to extrinsic motivation? These are the questions we need to be asking, not simply do cash incentives work.

There is another reason why I take umbrage at the idea of paying poor kids to stay in school: it is essentially an admission of defeat. By offering money to certain kids in exchange for staying in school, we are conceding that the education on offer at our schools is not relevant or exciting enough in its own right to hold these kids' interest. More important, we're also affirming our collective unwillingness to tackle the root problem—poverty—head on, revealing instead a timorous inclination to chip at it around the edges by doling out a few dollars here and there through the school system. Both of these admissions are depressing. Do Spence, and other advocates of paying the poor to stay in school, really want to make them?

* While researching this post, I was surprised to learn that the corporal punishment in school is still permitted in 20 States in the US, and that it was not officially banned in Canada until 2004.


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  2. Paying students to do well in school seems like a natural outgrowth of the increasingly coercive "Make Them Learn What We Decide They Should Learn and On Our Schedule" approach to education. Under that approach, what child would find learning enjoyable for its own sake? I agree that it's essentially an admission of defeat, although a genuine admission of defeat would be better, since it might spur policymakers to consider giving the kids a little more autonomy over their own education.

  3. Re: "By offering money to certain kids in exchange for staying in school..."

    Director Spence has made the fair argument that middle- and upper-class students often enjoy monetary rewards from their families: rewards for good grades, tuition and RESPs. So "paying" low-income students evens out the motivation field and lets them see possibilities down the road.

    Educational philosphers such as Iris Murdoch have also argued (and others shown) that, when undertaking a challenging task, an extrinsic reward improves persistence in a difficult task, until it is mastered and then the intrinsic rewards reveal themselves.

    I think this is an idea worth exploring further.