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New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein doesn't remember kicking Fryer out, but he concedes that the program was contentious. "When people want to try new and different things in education," Klein says, "it will always stir up controversy."
In January 2007, after the mayoral election had come and gone, Fryer returned to New York this time with a more audacious plan. He wanted to create a treatment group and a control group, just like a real scientist. And he had a $2 million grant from the Broad Foundation, which had taken an interest in Fryer because of the scientific rigor of his approach.
This time, Fryer wanted to get a random sample of city schools to participate. Which is not as easy as it sounds. At some schools, the principal and teachers opened their arms wide and said, "Sure. We're struggling here. We'll try anything." At others, Fryer had to spend hours pleading with staff who felt kids should learn for the love of learning not for the cash. "To this day, I can't tell you what will predict one or the other," he says. "I could walk into a completely failing school, with crack vials on the ground outside, and say, 'Hey, I went to a school like this, and I want to help.' And people would just browbeat me about 'the love of learning,' and I would be like, 'But I just stepped on crack vials out there! There are fights in the hallways! We're beyond that.' "
Eventually, Fryer and his team got 143 schools to sign up. About half would be randomly selected as a control group, meaning the kids would not be paid. In the other half, students would earn money for their performance on 10 routine tests given throughout the year.
The summer before the experiment began, a New York Daily News reporter heard about the plan. The story, headlined "It's a Cash Course," quoted an antitesting activist who called the plan "horrendous." One of Fryer's other funders pulled half a million dollars. Fryer got kicked out of the schools again, he says. This time, Klein took him to a Yankees game. A few days later, Fryer was allowed back in the schools. But he started waking up at 3 a.m. to check the newspapers.
The anger was not something Fryer had anticipated. "I totally underestimated how pissed off people would be because of this," he says. "This is exactly the kind of R&D education needs. I never said it was going to solve all education problems. I just thought it deserved to be tested."
The most damning criticism of Fryer came from psychologists like the University of Rochester's Edward Deci, who has spent his career studying motivation. Deci has found that money like other tangible rewards does not work very well to motivate people over the long term, particularly for tasks that involve creativity. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that rewards can have the perverse effect of making people perform worse.
A classic experiment in support of this hypothesis took place at a nursery school at Stanford University in the early 1970s. There, researchers divided 51 toddlers into groups. All the kids were asked to draw a picture with markers. But one group was told in advance that they would get a special reward a certificate with a gold star and a red ribbon in exchange for their work. The kids did the drawings, and the ones in the treatment group got their certificates.
A few weeks later, the researchers observed the children through a one-way mirror on a normal school day. They found that the kids who had received the award spent half as much time drawing for fun as those who had not been rewarded. The reward, it seemed, diminished the act of drawing. So instead of giving kids gold stars, Deci says, we should teach them to derive intrinsic pleasure from the task itself. "What we really want is for people to value the activity of learning," he says. People of all ages perform better and work harder if they are actually enjoying the work not just the reward that comes later.
In principle, Fryer agrees. "Kids should learn for the love of learning," he says. "But they're not. So what shall we do?" Most teenagers do not look at their math homework the way toddlers look at a blank piece of paper. It would be wonderful if they did. Maybe one day we will all approach our jobs that way. But until then, most adults work primarily for money, and in a curious way, we seem to be holding kids to a higher standard than we hold ourselves.
In the fall of 2007, the New York City experiment began. Fourth-graders could earn a maximum of $25 per test, and seventh-graders could earn up to $50 per test. To participate, kids had to get their parents' permission and 82% of them did. Most of them also opened savings accounts so the money could be directly deposited into them. Meanwhile, Fryer and his team found other testing grounds. In Chicago, Fryer worked with schools chief Arne Duncan, now President Obama's Education Secretary, to design a program to reward ninth-graders for good grades. Over beer and pizza in a South Side bowling alley, they sketched out a plan to pay kids $50 for each A, $35 for a B and $20 for a C, up to $2,000 a year. But half of their earnings would be set aside in an account, to be redeemed only upon high school graduation.
In Washington, middle schoolers would be paid for a portfolio of five different metrics, including attendance and good behavior. If they hit perfect marks in every category, they could make $100 every two weeks. Schools in Dallas got the simplest scheme and the one targeting the youngest children: every time second-graders read a book and successfully completed a computerized quiz about it, they earned $2. Straightforward and cheap. The average earning would turn out to be about $14 (for seven books read) per year.