Should We Be Paying Kids To Do Well?

This question was raised by Time Magazine in a piece entitled Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?

This article discusses recent research conducted by Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr. Fryer ran a randomized experiment in hundreds of classrooms across multiple cities. He used mostly private funds to pay 18,000 kids a total of $6.3 million and worked with a team of researchers to analyze the effects. The results were inconclusive, but Fryer learned that although money talks with kids, there is much more to learning than just a paycheck.

The article reminded me of a project I participated in during the summer between my first and second years of medical school. At that time I was working in collaboration with the Urban League in Philadelphia. The National Urban League is a historic civil rights organization dedicated to economic empowerment in order to elevate the standard of living in historically underserved urban communities. We were working with adolescents from an from inner-city high school who had been deemed "potential dropouts" by their principal. The investigation was a summer project to teach these boys (they were all boys) the importance of learning, graduating from high school and gaining confidence about working in the real world. With the cooperation of a local hospital, the boys were given various responsibilities in the radiology file room. They had to file the X-ray folders, interact with hospital personnel, wear a "uniform," report on time and behave professionally. In addition, as part of their summer responsibilities, they had to spend time learning. The lesson was to learn how and why to learn.

The two components, working and going to class, were linked together and I was responsible for their behavior, their lessons and for their receiving compensation. For the classroom setting the goal was to read. To make this task doable we chose a text that would have some inherent meaning and interest to the group, and decided on the then best seller the Autobiography of Malcolm X. My role was to set the goals and guide them through the book. The students were paid nickels, dimes and quarters for reaching milestones in the reading assignments, e.g., reading sentences aloud, comprehending the meaning of what was read, asking/answering questions, etc. Additionally, their behavior at work and acceptance by the employees they interacted with was similarly rewarded.

The project was called "Operation Open Eyeball." It more than opened the eyeballs of the kids that started and finished the program (they ALL finished the summer and the book). It also opened my eyes. In looking back on this experience, it worked for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, the youngsters had been handpicked and regardless of why they were selected, they felt special having been selected. They received instant gratification and recognition for their effort and for a job well done. They seemed to enjoy being at work, were always on time, and as a group felt that someone or many were depending on them. The small monetary reward they received for accomplishing an identified task, reaching a goal, served to objectively and repeatedly validate the way they felt about their role and about themselves.

The money was not meant to be monumental, but it was meant to be an incentive and it worked. They all laughed as dimes and nickels were placed in their hands for each accomplishment and the exercise itself seemed to be a confidence builder. They were not losers in anyone's eyes, including their own. Although we did not discuss their home lives, many of them seemed to yearn for positive role models to help them on the path of learning. These youngsters appreciated being cared about and that someone was interested if they came to the hospital for the job assignment and to the class. They had a purpose that summer.

Overall, we hope we helped change their idea of why learning was so important. In the simplest terms they learned that work and effort is rewarded and appreciated. They saw firsthand that an education matters and that they would be able to find employment and even more that going to work can be fun.

One of the kids in the program had been previously in trouble with the police. Knowing this, I went into the classroom thinking that he would be the toughest one to get to cooperate and would be a trouble maker. To my surprise, he was one of the best in the class. He was motivated and his response to the program was absolutely phenomenal. He was a born leader and helped the group coalesce. I do not know where he or any of the other students are today, but I hope that they are all well and successful. They impacted my life and I hope vice-versa.

So when I read about whether kids should be paid to succeed, I believe that there needs to be more than just money for motivation. Children -- and adults -- need to know that parents, teachers and others in their lives support and believe that they can succeed and take pleasure in their accomplishments. Instant gratification confirms that they are valuable and have worth. The potential for success is worth a try.