Money is not always the answer in education

Economists have a vested interest in a successful and educated population as well as a creative and innovative workforce, which is why Harvard Economist Roland Fryer Jr. is researching incentivisation. Incentivisation is the effect of paying some one to learn at the K-12 school level. Fryer, who was one of Time Magazines Influential People in 2009, has been working within multiple school districts across the United States to evaluate the efficacy of money in educational motivation.
As part of the ever improving and changing terrain in education, what works does not always grow and bloom as expected. Incentivizing (‘pay’ in the broad sense for grades or scores) students is nothing new and in fact relies heavily upon operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is way of learning that enforces good behavior with rewards and discourages bad behavior through punishment. Nothing new under the Pavlovian sun has yet made grasslands into forest. It appears society is running up against the dual ‘seed’ concepts of motivation and locus of control, both of which seem to have genetic and environmental contributions and make the classroom/workplace blossom with creativity and innovation. Both locus of control and motivation have far reaching impacts beyond the classroom so the research is incredibly important to follow.
What is most interesting is how incentivization plays out and how the potential to manipulate this curious force of mind over matter can make classrooms better.
To date, the research (what research? Fryer’s research) indicates that younger children can be tempted with pay for reading and easily weaned off of this simple incentive. As children age up, the incentive of money seems to be less reliable and more addictive in order for the individual to have follow through. The most interesting part of the research (what research?) is that standardized test scores can improve for older children. However, it is only standardized test scores that seem to benefit. The issue at hand is whether or not incentives lead to life long learning, creativity or personal satisfaction – all which would require more substantial longitudinal studies.
It seems the human animal continues to be motivated by food, sex and power (which can be in the form of wealth) although none of these consistently and reliably lead to anything more than getting the dog to the kibble bowl and making it eat.
I commend Mr. Fryer for pursuing research to evaluate what would make education work better although it seems in contradiction with what we really want to know – how do we make people learn better? Internal locus of control seems to be the defining factor both for success through determination (self efficacy) and the willingness, not the inherent ability, to learn. How do we as a culture support empowerment, which is a belief of control of oneself and ones immediate environment and is in conflict with the concept of corruption? While locus of control may correlate to money, I think it wise to pursue the economics of self confidence and habituating a life of joy in learning for its own self worth.


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