I've always been a fan of the authors of Freakonomics, and probably still will be a fan after reading this article. In this case, they're really just the messengers and we can't blame them for what the wealthy education reformers are probably going to do with this information. In the meantime, though, let's read a summary of one of their recent studies and look at how the editors of The Atlantic are already interpreting things.
Since it's a subject of economics (or freakonomics, whatever the difference is) and it involves education, I'm sure you can guess that it involves incentive-based learning. The latest study repeats what we already know is true - when you give students rewards, they perform a task better - but it's the Atlantic editor's conclusion that really tears me up. Just look at the headline:
Look at the cute little kids! Don't they just look like the kinds of children eager to wake up every morning to go to school and... wait a second, what's that tagline?
"The case for putting $20 bills on the desk of every standardized test taker."
Can I stop here? Can we all stop here, please?
Incentives work. We know this. It's human nature. We also know that in many cases, it works insofar as you get a certain behavior to exhibit itself but no long-lasting habit is formed. Think about your current jobs, with their paychecks and perks. It's great, right? If I told you that in two weeks, the paychecks would stop coming and you'd have to pay for your own dental insurance, but still keep working for me, would you keep that job? Maybe for a day or two, but then it'd eat away at you that you're volunteering to do a job that you got paid handsomely for just days before.
So tell me, Derek Thompson, business editor for The Atlantic... If my goal as a 2nd or 3rd grade teacher is to take a bright young child and build a lifetime love for learning, do you really think I should give them all $80/hour to try to do better on a test?
My (least) favorite part is when Derek points out one of public education's really troubling issues. Hold on tight, everyone, it's a doozie:
The trouble for many schools is that the incentive structure is set up so that teachers focus more than their students on standardized tests.
Don't bother checking to see that you read it correctly. The problem with our schools and their current incentive-based learning structures (which isn't even as awful as it could be) are that they focus too much on the students, not on the tests.
Derek, I thought you were kidding. I really, really, REALLY wanted this to be a joke. But I got all the way to the end of your article and this was all that I found:
... it's here, in under-served school districts, where the lessons of attention might be the most lucrative for the country. If we can buy their attention today, we'll all be richer for it.
I don't know about all of the readers of this blog, but I can assure you, Derek Thompson, that I did not choose to become a teacher so that I could hand out dollar bills to 3rd graders, beg them to score high on a standardized-test, and then wait patiently for the results to come back so that we can prove to the rest of the world that we've succeeded at educating the future generations of America.
Stick to real economics, and let us find innovative ways to raise student achievement without your filthy dollar bills.