To bribe or not to bribe?

We’re talking about kids here, as in providing tangible incentives—like money—for school achievement.

I’ve long been of the camp that believes such incentives are harmful in the long run, shifting focus from what is learned to getting the reward, but research by a Harvard economist named Roland Fryer, Jr., appears to show that the question is not that simple.

As described in an article last week at Time.com, Fryer’s studies used several different reward systems, offering cash for high scores on standardized tests, for good grades, or for specific tasks, such as reading books. The incentives had little or no effect on test scores, but worked well for more concrete tasks.

The key, it seems, is to offer rewards for things the students have control over. Test scores and grades are too abstract, determined by factors outside most kids’ reach. But whether to read a book or get to class on time or not disrupt class are exactly the sort of tasks kids can effectively decide for themselves, and in those cases, cash rewards can sometimes be effective.

Of course, that’s in the short term. Long-range implications have yet to be determined.

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