In junior high school, one of my classmates had a TV addiction back before it was normal. This boy we'll call him Ethan was an encyclopedia of vacuous content, from The A-Team to Who's the Boss?
Then one day Ethan's mother made him a bold offer. If he could go a full month without watching any TV, she would give him $200. None of us thought he could do it. But Ethan quit TV, just like that. His friends offered to let him cheat at their houses on Friday nights (Miami Vice nights!). Ethan said no.
One month later, Ethan's mom paid him $200. He went out and bought a TV, the biggest one he could find.
Since there have been children, there have been adults trying to get them to cooperate. The Bible repeatedly commands children to heed their parents and proposes that disobedient children be stoned to death or at least have their eyes picked out by ravens. Over the centuries, the stick (or paddle or switch) has lost favor, in most cases, to the carrot. Today the petty bribes a sticker for using the toilet or a cookie for sitting still in church start before kids can speak in full sentences.
In recent years, hundreds of schools have made these transactions more businesslike, experimenting with paying kids with cold, hard cash for showing up or getting good grades or, in at least one case, going another day without getting pregnant.
I have not met a child who does not admire this trend. But it makes adults profoundly uncomfortable. Teachers complain that we are rewarding kids for doing what they should be doing of their own volition. Psychologists warn that money can actually make kids perform worse by cheapening the act of learning. Parents predict widespread slacking after the incentives go away. And at least one think-tank scholar has denounced the strategy as racist. The debate has become a proxy battle for the larger war over why our kids are not learning at the rate they should be despite decades of reforms and budget increases.
But all this time, there has been only one real question, particularly in America's lowest-performing schools: Does it work?
To find out, a Harvard economist named Roland Fryer Jr. did something education researchers almost never do: he ran a randomized experiment in hundreds of classrooms in multiple cities. He used mostly private money to pay 18,000 kids a total of $6.3 million and brought in a team of researchers to help him analyze the effects. He got death threats, but he carried on. The results, which he shared exclusively with TIME, represent the largest study of financial incentives in the classroom and one of the more rigorous studies ever on anything in education policy.
The experiment ran in four cities: Chicago, Dallas, Washington and New York. Each city had its own unique model of incentives, to see which would work best. Some kids were paid for good test scores, others for not fighting with one another. The results are fascinating and surprising. They remind us that kids, like grownups, are not puppets. They don't always respond the way we expect.
In the city where Fryer expected the most success, the experiment had no effect at all "as zero as zero gets," as he puts it. In two other cities, the results were promising but in totally different ways. In the last city, something remarkable happened. Kids who got paid all year under a very elegant scheme performed significantly better on their standardized reading tests at the end of the year. Statistically speaking, it was as if those kids had spent three extra months in school, compared with their peers who did not get paid.
"These are substantial effects, as large as many other interventions that people have thought to be successful," says Brian Jacob, a University of Michigan public-policy and economics professor who has studied incentives and who reviewed Fryer's study at TIME's request. If incentives are designed wisely, it appears, payments can indeed boost kids' performance as much as or more than many other reforms you've heard about before and for a fraction of the cost.
Money is not enough. (It never is.) But for some kids, it may be part of the solution. In the end, we all want our children to grow into self-motivated adults. The question is, How do we help them get there? And is it possible that at least for some kids, the road is paved not with stickers but with $20 bills?
Fryer runs an education-innovation laboratory that has a staff of 17 and an annual budget of about $6 million. His goal is to use the scientific method to figure out how to close the learning gap between America's white and minority kids by the year 2025. When I visit Fryer at his Harvard lab this spring, he hands me an agenda for the day and proudly introduces me to his team. For the next three hours, as we talk about the experiment, Fryer is charming and intense, occasionally lapsing into economist speak and then apologizing for being a "nerd."
But Fryer's fascination with the lives and choices of kids is not entirely academic. He grew up poor in Texas, where he lived with his dad, a copier salesman. When Fryer was 16, his dad was arrested for sexual assault and Fryer had to bail him out of jail.
Meanwhile, Fryer raised himself, and not very well. He got a job at McDonald's and stole from the cash register. He sold marijuana and carried a .357 Magnum for a while. But he was fiercely competitive on the basketball court and the football field, and that's where he excelled, earning a basketball scholarship to the University of Texas at Arlington.
In his first semester of college, Fryer took a calculus class. On his initial exam, he scored 45 out of 100. "My friends started calling me Colt 45," he remembers. The failure enraged him, and his pride kicked in. "I didn't want to be like everyone else from my neighborhood," he says.
Fryer started working hard in school for the first time. He graduated in two and a half years with an economics degree. Then he got his Ph.D. at Penn State University, where he began to use the tools of economics to study the problems of inequality. He joined Harvard's faculty at age 26, a case study in the power of shifting motivations.
At Harvard, Fryer heard about a school in New York City that was trying to incentivize kids on a small scale. The idea appealed to him because, unlike reforms focused on the teacher or the curriculum, it treated kids not as inanimate objects but as human beings who behave in interesting ways. But he had no idea if it would work.
In 2005 he persuaded Gavin Samms, a friend and Harvard colleague, to go to New York City with him to try to sign up some schools for a pilot program. "We didn't know anything about what we were doing," Fryer says. They couldn't afford to stay in New York, so they stayed at a hotel in the Meadowlands a grim tract of wetlands in New Jersey. Then they drove around to pitch the idea to principals.
One day while they were visiting a school, they got a call from the school system's headquarters, which had originally approved their project. "They said, 'You gotta leave now,' " Samms remembers. " 'You gotta leave the schools.' " Fryer protested, but he lost. "It was just too political," he says. "It was an election year. They'd already gotten letters saying, 'You can't be paying kids.' "