This is first draft thinking if ever such a thing existed. And it’s selfish. And personal. And close to home.
Ani goes to Kindergarten in the fall, so we spent the winter investigating schools around our town. We were looking for places that felt right for us – evidence of care and thoughtfulness, ties to particular district programs that we think are valuable or hope that Ani will have an interest in in the future, that sort of thing.
We settled on a short list of three elementary schools in our school district, the district where my wife is also a teacher. One of the schools, our first choice, was full up and we didn’t get selected into it. Of the two that remained, it was a draw. Until I attended parent nights. I could tell that both schools cared about kids, but I had a real concern about one of the two schools: the use of Accelerated Reader (AR).
While I was at the parent night where I learned about the school’s use of AR, I tweeted some of my questions and concerns, and began to hear back from many people about the pros and cons of AR.1 Actually, that’s not true. There were a few lukewarm responses. But most of the replies, many of them private, were about bad2 experiences that folks and their children had with the program. Phrases like “it sucked the joy out of reading” were sent to me by friends, colleagues, and near strangers from all over my Twittersphere.
And I swore to myself, as I listened and thought and considered, that I wouldn’t expose my daughter to such a program.
And yet, Ani will begin next year in that school, where AR is a large piece, according to the principal, of the formative assessment used by the Kindergarten teachers.3
That said, I’ve got some baggage around Accelerated Reader and programs like it. And I worry that my baggage is unfounded, particularly when people I know and respect choose to use the program. I don’t get it. And that bugs me.4
I know that motivation that springs from external sources isn’t terribly motivating when the external motivator is gone. In fact, I know that such external motivation can decrease one’s intrinsic motivation for the thing that being fiddled with. I was reminded of the tension between what I know about motivation and what I see thoughtful people doing when they use AR when I stumbled across this article in Time on Saturday.
The piece is a profile of some work being done by Roland Fryer, Jr., an economist at Harvard, to see what effect money can have on student performance. The angle that’s interesting is that he’s not looking at how to incentivize teaching – he’s looking to see if financial incentives can impact learning. Specifically, he’s paying kids to do certain things. And it’s fascinating work, for several reasons.
For starters, he ran into considerable trouble from grown ups when he proposed doing such studies, in part because folks (like me) get hinky whenever you talk about paying kids to do well in school.5 More on that in a moment.
I’m also curious because of the way he set his tests up – there are several different models in his study, ranging from paying 2nd graders $2/book to do some reading up to paying high school students a certain amount for every good grade they earn.
The author of the article, Amanda Ripley, does a good job summing up some of Edward Deci‘s work on motivation, which I’ve relied on in the past:
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 Washington, the kids did better on standardized reading tests. Getting paid on a routine basis for a series of small accomplishments, including attendance and behavior, seemed to lead to more learning for those kids. And in Dallas, the experiment produced the most dramatic gains of all. Paying second-graders to read books significantly boosted their reading-comprehension scores on standardized tests at the end of the year — and those kids seemed to continue to do better the next year, even after the rewards stopped.
So now we come back to AR, a program where, as in Dallas, students are incentivized to read books. Maybe I shouldn’t be linking these two things, but I am, and it’s making me uncomfortable.
I’m one of those folks who thinks of questions of motivation when it comes to Accelerated Reader. I would make the case, if you asked me a week ago, that AR kills intrinsic motivation and replaces it with a token7. As soon as the tokens are gone, then so is the reason to do the thing that you were handing out the tokens for. In fact, I made that argument in a classroom last week in my school district.
And then I read this article. And it’s messing with my head.
Suppose I’m wrong about the fact that paying kids – be it through cash or other tangible stuff – doesn’t help them to improve as readers, writers and thinkers. Suppose that AR is one of those programs that, like $2/book for second graders in Texas, leads to long term gains for kids. Is that a deal worth making? I’m not sure, but I can’t discount or write it off as easily as I might like to.8
And that bugs me. Lots.
- I also recorded a podcast about the experience. Give it a listen if you want to learn more. [↩]
- terribly, horribly, awfully, no good, very bad [↩]
- This post isn’t about the school, or their methodology. I’m excited to have Ani go there, although I am nervous about the experience. We’ll stay on top of it. I hope. [↩]
- It fills me with terror and anxiety, actually. If I’m wrong about AR, what else am I wrong about? And AM I wrong about AR? [↩]
- And we might be right to get hinky about such things. [↩]
- I’m butchering the conclusions – you should really read the study for yourself. I’m planning on it. [↩]
- Or a pizza, or a toy, or a whatever [↩]
- Big suppositions, but I’m thinking out loud here. And about to ask you to help me think out loud better. [↩]