A closer look at the Freakonimics pay for grades study

A few weekends ago, I watched the movie version of Freakonomics (available on Netflix instant streaming here). Except for the film’s final section, “Freakonomics: The Movie” covers exactly the same topics as the first book in a more digestible format.The final section covers a test conducted at a Chicago Heights High School, exploring the question: “Can a ninth grader be bribed to succeed?”. (Note: in discussing the ideas presented, I will discuss a few ‘spoilers’ from the movie).

Without going into too much detail, the test identified underperforming students and enlisted in a program which enabled them to potentially win $50 for every month where all their class grades were above a “C”. Students who earned the $50 were also enrolled in a lottery, giving them a chance to win an additional $500 each month. (More details on this test available at the NYTimes movie review). The outcome of such a test can perhaps offer greater insight into how to create a culture of economic pursuit in socioeconomic environments where academic achievement are in short supply.

This test was financed and conducted by The University of Chicago Department of Economics*. I’ll pause here to acknowledge the herculean effort it must have taken to receive approval for such a large scale test across two systems of bureaucracy. All those involved in documenting and implementing such a test should be commended and I hope more individuals across the U.S. and the world (such as Kalimah Priforce with Careersters) are willing to try unconventional methods in an effort to establish academic achievement as the new status quo.

With acknowledgments out of the way. The test itself relied on a multiple prong effort. Parents were informed and the researchers hosted an event to kick off the program. One of the research team members called and contacted parents and students to discuss grades and to encourage students to be proactive in improving their grades. Each month a ceremony took place recognizing achieving students, who were then paid $50 and the lottery winner received his/her $500 check- and a glitzy limo ride.

The Test

Based on the movie, I gather that the test operators had a few hypotheses: (1) by attaching a financial incentive to academic achievement, a large percentage of students would go from failing to passing. (2) By glamorizing the reward associated with academic achievement, it would provide a psychological motivation that would correlate academic achievement with reward.  (3) Finally, by proactively contacting students and informing parents of the ‘test’, the raised awareness of grades would increase parent/student involvement and lead to greater academic success.

Before I get into the results, let me pause here; anyone who has spent any amount of time in a suburban or inner city high school would know that high school is governed by noneconomic motivations. Let me explain; in the book “Predictably Irrational” there is an entire chapter based on ‘the cost of social norms’:

A few years ago for instance, the AARP asked some lawyers if they would offer less expensive services to needy retirees, at something like $30 an hour. The lawyers said no. Then the program manager from AARP had a brilliant idea: he asked the lawyers if they would offer free service to needy retirees. Overwhelmingly, the lawyers said yes.

The Results

The conclusion of the chapter is that some things, no matter how hard we try, are driven by motivations that extend beyond monetary. Which is something the researchers soon found out. SPOILER ALERT The net result was that  incentives. Researchers increased passing rates by five to seven percent and, to their credit researchers admit this is far below their expected results. I disagree however with their conclusion that ninth grade is too late that they need to focus on even younger students.

If adults can be motivated to read, or go back to school, I have no doubt that 9th graders can develop habits geared toward academic achievement. My belief is that the test was poorly structured.

Freakonomics Chicago Heights Test Results

PROBLEMS with the test

In my opinion, the test begins with the wrong hypothesis. Its hypothesis states that economic incentives drive high school life, or are at least a key factor. This hypothesis is incorrect for one clear reason; in high school students don’t want to acknowledge money as a factor that drives them. Students from poorer families don’t want to discuss money especially if it shines attention on their being poor. In fact, high schoolers spend all their time creating a façade that claims that money is no object. Trust me, no one wants to be the kid in class that is money conscious, especially in a school district where single parent households are the norm.

So for a student to change their behavior based on an economic motivation, $50 a month, is to acknowledge an economic status many students spend their time ignoring. The test administrators wouldn’t dare try to improve under-performing students in a wealthier school district by offering $50 a month to ‘C’ students. No, the underlying problem with the test is that it begins with the wrong hypothesis. A better hypothesis would’ve been one that began with social status as a reward and focused on frequent rewards to shape new patterns of behavior.

As Habit: The 95% of Behavior Marketers Ignore states:

… the habitual mind learns through cause and effect, reward and repetition.

The challenge researchers were up against, was not a lack of desire for a better life; to the contrary it was a lot of bad habits shaped over years and years. As a great thinker, peer and friend Randall Croom might say, “These students have the grades they have been practicing to have.” Suffice it to say any program with the goal of behavioral modification must integrate a reward and repetition program far more frequently than once a month.

How I would Change the Test

My core hypothesis would be that small rewards and recognition could shape new patterns of behavior in failing students, and to shape any lasting behavior the goal would be to surround students with other like students where academic achievement is the baseline.

With this as my hypothesis, I would begin with the assumption that test results are not the problem, incomplete homework assignments and infrequent study habits are the problem. Here are the action steps I would implement to accomplish this goal:

  1. Train the parents. Host a one hour class for willing students, informing them what practices have been shown to motivate new behaviors and what haven’t for example. Promising money for grades is not a reward I would recommend for parents- but I would focus on establishing a one hour reading or homework time in the common area. Oh you don’t have homework? Well read at the table and you don’t go anywhere until the time is up. Tough to coordinate around a single parent schedule, but I’m sure many households can find a variation that works.
  2. Create a study period for new achievers. The goal here is to get students making new friends who have committed to the goal of higher academic achievement. Make this study period exclusive. Only those who have met some weekly criteria come back, therefore if you make it once and you meet new people who you’d like to hang out with again. You’re more motivated to do the work necessary to come back. A healthy kind of peer pressure, where it replaces some of the older friends that may feel isolated by the students ‘new found’ academic pursuit, with new friends who share the same pursuit.
  3. Reward homework completion and quiz grades not test results. As a society we tend to place a lot of value on the outcome (the 1600 2400 SAT score, or the Ivy League Diploma) and less on the many small decisions and tests of perseverance it took to get there. We shouldn’t reward grades and exams as if they are the cause, we need to shape behavior by rewarding homework completion and quiz grades, as they better reflect a student who has committed necessary effort for academic achievement. So instead of giving $50 once a month students should earn smaller amounts based on a pattern of study habits and homework completion.
  4. Smaller rewards with greater frequency. If the habitual mind learns through cause and effect, reward and repetition; frequency matters. Every time a student correctly embraces a new pattern of behavior, for example homework, studying, participating in class. They should receive a reward that links to the action. I would propose a star for every successful day, administered by someone who rates high on EQ (preferably not directly related to the school, sadly by 9th grade many students have been taught through cause and effect that the institution of school is not your friend). And at the end of a successful week a corresponding reward, 3 stars – a small certificate, 4 stars – a normal sized certificate and $10, 5 stars – a normal sized certificate and $20.
  5. Make money a consequence, not a reward. A student doesn’t want to seem hard pressed for a few bucks, but if you give them sincere recognition for their success (like a certificate of achievement) and a nice envelope of money, students from a less well off communities will derive a greater learned behavior from the money in a way that is far different than if the money were ‘reward’. We naturally reject rewards for things that we truly feel we should do anyway- for example imagine getting ‘rewarded’ by your boss for coming to work on time. Would make you feel awkward right? But assume that breakfast was available as a consequence of getting to work on time. This is the subtle difference between a reward and a consequence. Sometimes, consequences are more effective at changing behavior than rewards.

The net effect is that there would be a higher overhead cost in terms of daily follow up with students. But monetarily it should dispense more funds at a lower cost per achieving student.

Post script: In hindsight looking at this list, I see one glaring omission: “Train the Teachers”. Teachers, like students learn though cause and effect; suffice it to say that many of these teachers have expectations of students, based on the students habits, attitudes and patterns of behavior, that are difficult to reset just with better preparation in school. In fact, I believe underperforming students, and teachers of those underperforming students would hold that they have an ‘adversarial’ relationship with each other. Resetting this relationship and teaching or reminding teachers about preferred methods of shaping behavior is a necessary step in getting students to consistently achieve. Sadly in the earliest days of behavior shaping students are easily discouraged. This speaks to another omission that I flirt with in my post, but I don’t outright speak on the ‘learned helplessness’ that has taken place by this point in students educational careers.

*Itself a lightning rod of criticism.

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