PAYING SMART KIDS
Matt Yglesias floats an interesting idea:
[C]onsider the question of standards and accountability in education. This is definitely a good thing, in a general sense — folks need to be held to standards and there needs to be some accountability. But instead of the byzantine No Child Left Behind standards based on the notion that holding schools accountable will in some way ricochet around and force districts to do a better job of educating their kids, how about something crude — giving money to kids who meet certain benchmarks.
Now we all know that working hard and doing well in school pays off in the long run and that that ought to be incentive enough for people to do it, but in practice they don’t. Human beings, famously, discount the future more than is strictly rational, so people slack off when really they shouldn’t. To get kids to do well, you need to shorten the time horizon by making good performance pay off in the short term.
As I note in his comments, the likely result, especially in the short term, would be a public transfer of money to the children of the wealthy and to Asians and Caucasians. That is, we’re likely to reinforce current tendencies rather than to transform them.
The same baselines would prevail: Those with higher IQs, better-educated parents, a home with lots of books and magazines, stable parents, caring parents, safer neighborhoods, and so forth are naturally more likely to do well in school. The same people, incidentally, are likely to pay more heed to the link between their actions and the consequences arising from them. The only countervailing factor I can see is that, if the financial payoff if fixed–say, $100 per “A,” $80 for “B,” and so on–the reward will seem relatively higher for kids whose parents are in lower economic strata.
Another obvious problem here is that different schools–indeed, different teachers, grade differently. So, what might be a $100 effort in one school is an $80 effort in another. This would almost surely put a great deal of pressure on schools and teachers to engage in grade inflation. This would be especially true in poorer neighborhoods–ironically, the main problem area this program is aimed at–since the kids’ school incentive check would in effect become a major part of their family income. We’ve seen evidence of this happening in states like Georgia (see here and here) where high school grades are linked to state scholarship grants: Giving a poor kid a C+ may mean that he doesn’t go on to college, where a B- gives him a free ride. It’s of course difficult to distinguish between actual increases in performance owing to the new incentive structure and lowering of standards in order to “help” the kids achieve those standards, but the evidence seems to point to the latter being more prevalent.
As this USA Today story notes, there is also a perverse incentive to avoid difficult classes, since getting good grades is more likely in easy ones.