Paying kids to read can boost test scores

Paying kids to do schoolwork is a very successful method to inspire better grades, better behavior, and most objectively: better test scores. That's the result of years of controversial work by a team of economists, and what's more, some really happy kids.

Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer, Jr.'s experiment was provocative, but scientifically rigorous. He compared the merits of paying children for different sorts of achievements -- test scores, grades, attendance, good behavior, or simply reading books -- to control groups in the same cities who were unpaid.

The results were mixed. Paying children for, as one fellow mama Tweeted critically, "doing what they're supposed to" actually works, best if it's done in small, discrete doses. For instance, paying for test results is completely useless; children don't have a good enough grasp on how to improve their test scores, and it's too infrequent of a payout and long-term of a goal.

The study found that paying for good grades and good behavior can work, if it's done frequently (bi-weekly was most successful) and for small achievements (homework grades, not semester grades, for example).

The strategy that not only got kids excited, but also changed the long-term outcome of state achievement tests, was paying elementary school kids $2 for every book they read. The average payout was $14 over a year; not only did test scores go up highest in this group, but grades went up, too; higher than in the schools where economists paid children for good grades.

I was having a bad day with my three little boys when the Time magazine arrived with this news on the cover. My second-grader was bored because his little brother wouldn't play Monopoly with him; my preschooler was screeching in sadness because his big brother wouldn't play Pokemon; my toddler was just asking for his big brother to read a book.

None of them would listen to my increasingly shrill reason ("if you'll just play the game your brother wants to play..." "if you'll just read to your baby brother until he calms down.."). I picked up the magazine, read a few paragraphs about the study and, emboldened, offered my kids a deal; five dollars to the oldest for being calm and kind to his brothers for the rest of the day. Three dollars to the middle child for getting through his frustrations without tears. The baby just got happy playmates.

The next thing I knew, they'd made a pact and were happily playing Monopoly while the youngest zoomed Pokemon cards around their heads. The rest of the day went beautifully, and without even selling (all) my soul to the TV screen. I'm considering instituting a weekly reading incentive of a few dollars.

If you call it a "bribe" and you invest it with all the moral weight of other, bigger pay-to-play ethical questions -- money for kidneys, say, or paying cash for handguns -- it's easy to get caught up in how wrong paying kids for performance could be. On the other hand, if you give children something they can control, something small and achievable and tangible like reading a book, coming to school every day, or avoiding a fight at recess, and then pay for performance: it's hard to see how this could go all that wrong.

The total value is low, the results are proven, and the little smiles on their faces when they get the cash? Well, you know, priceless. What the child psychologists all agree on is that positive reinforcement works way better than negative reinforcement, and in a school system that gives kids far more opportunity for the black mark than the gold star, well, $2 a book looks like the golden rule.
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