Sunday, October 9, 2011

MacArthur Genius Grant Goes to Educational Researcher Who Showed Economic Incentives Don't Work

Among this year's recipients of the so-called "genius grants" by the MacArthur Foundation, which give promising unconventional achievers in diverse fields $500,000 with no strings attached to apply to their work, is education economist Roland G. Fryer, Jr.  Fryer is the founder and director of Harvard University's Education Innovation Laboratory and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.  His work has concentrated on trying to explain and address the educational achievement gaps among minority students.

Clearly, that is an important topic worthy of funding.  And Fryer has been involved in many different studies.  But what I found really interesting about this grant is that Fryer's arguably most significant studies where two that showed that financial incentives (i.e., paying people for higher test scores) DID NOT WORK.  In the first study, they tried offering more money to teachers for higher test scores; in the second, they did the same thing for students.  In neither case, however, did the money do anything to improve educational achievement (as measured by test scores, at least).

Here is a great quote by Fryer in talking about how these studies have radically changed his ideas of trying to improve education by linking higher compensation to higher scores:
"Economists always assume people know how to produce something. Incentives work if you are lazy, not if you don't know how to do something.  So that's spawned some new theoretical ideas for me. What if people don't know how to produce something? What do optimal incentives look like in that environment?"
I just think this is a great point to hear in our recent environment of blaming educational problems on bad teacher and evil teacher unions.  As I've said often before, we need to stop trying to impose the business model on schools, because education is not the same as just trying to sell more widgets.  Outstanding education, particularly during a time when more than one child out of every five is living in poverty, is a complex and ever-changing business.  Tying teacher pay directly to test scores is only likely to exacerbate the situation, because it drives teachers who need the extra salary money to move from high poverty schools, where the test scores may depend on how many of the children taking the test even had enough food in the past day to be able to focus on the exam, to the schools they know kids are likely to perform better, just on their life circumstances alone.

In short, it is NOT that teachers are lazy (OK, maybe some are, but not most).  It's that nobody knows how to consistently improve the many different factors that can inhibit educational achievement.   Dangling financial carrots in front of them for higher test scores has been shown to be useless at best, and insulting, morale sapping, and counterproductive at worst.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out this is a failing policy.


  1. Very nice sharing. Teachers also needs improvement no one is perfect in this world.

  2. That is definitely true. In fact, as I understand it, what Fryer's study showed was that while teachers would always like more salary, most felt that more professional development money was as important, if not more important, than bonuses for test score improvements. That it, most recognized that they couldn't earn the higher salaries without learning something new that would make them more effective in dealing with their students and their obstacles to better academic achievement.

    So simply offering financial incentives for better performance ultimately becomes frustrating and insulting, because it suggests that the teachers are "holding back" in doing all they can for students (at least, during the time for which they are compensated). It seems like the money would be better spent either on professional development workshops, or on paying teachers directly for taking personal time to develop additional or innovative class resources that may, or may not, improve student scores... but that are at least worth a try.

  3. I Agree with Carol. This is very informative and useful.