Bribing your kids to study: Does it work?

Geri-Ellen Dow trying to bribe her 14-year-old son to do his summer reading.

Kai Ryssdal: I had a conversation a month or so ago with Steven Levitt about the Freakonomics of getting kids to get good grades. And how Levitt says we oughta just pay 'em. Fifty bucks for an A was what he got when he was a kid. Me: not one thin dime. But that's a whole 'nother story.

Anyway, Geri-Ellen Dow heard the segment and tweeted us a picture of two crisp $20 bills -- one labeled "Great Expectations," the other labeled "The Odyssey" -- and a note saying the money was there for the taking by her 14-year-old son if he read the books in question.

So of course we had to call her up to see what happened. Geri, good to talk to you.

Geri-Ellen Dow: Thanks. It's nice talking with you, Kai.

Ryssdal: So you heard me talking to Steven Levitt about the Freakonomics of paying kids to study, and what did you do? Tell me about your experiment.

Dow: I'm always looking for ways to motivate the kids because they don't seem to be really excited about school themselves.

Ryssdal: Shocking, shocking.

Dow: Yeah, it is. So I thought that, well my son had two books to read over the summer -- "Great Expectations" and "The Odyssey."

Ryssdal: So how much were you going to pay them?

Dow: So I figured $20 a book was reasonable.

Ryssdal: Oh man. See, I'm not going to read "The Odyssey" for $20.

Dow: Yeah, you know, as it turns out, he felt probably the same way as well.

Ryssdal: So tell me what happened.

Dow: So what happened was, he finished "Great Expectations" maybe four days ago, five days ago, and then he started "The Odyssey" two days ago. And I just have to point out that school starts tomorrow.

Ryssdal: So you're going to get your $20 back.

Dow: Well...

Ryssdal: No, are you give it to him? Come on.

Dow: He's 250 pages into it. And the hesitation was he seems to be plowing through it, which I don't understand how you can do that.

Ryssdal: Yeah, no. You're going to pro-rate this then, is this what I'm hearing you tell me?

Dow: We had a really heated discussion yesterday about whether I intended to pay him if he got it done before school or before the comprehensive test.

Ryssdal: Yeah, that's actually a very good point, which I should probably raise to Steven Levitt -- you've got to define the terms of the agreement.

Dow: Yes, and I was not clear on that. Although I think as it happened, and I had some different ideas about what I would have done if I was doing it over again.

Ryssdal: Like what?

Dow: Well I would have offered him more than $20.

Ryssdal: Yeah, you got that right.

Dow: For a 500-page book that was written 2,000 years ago.

Ryssdal: Now, Levitt and Dubner, the guys behind Freakonomics, would say, 'Well your sample size is a little small, and you need more information over time.'

Dow: So you think I should maybe have more kids and do it longer, is that what you're suggesting?

Ryssdal: No. Well, that's a personal choice actually. But really, you need to do the experiment over a longer period of time so you can have more data, more information, right?

Dow: And with more rigorous controls in terms of what the expectations are. Yes.

Ryssdal: Are you thinking you might do this again next summer? I guess you're going to wait and see how it goes, right?

Dow: Yes, I'm going to wait. I don't know. I don't know.

Ryssdal: This is so fun, you are clearly conflicted about this.

Dow: I am conflicted about it, yes.

Ryssdal: Huh. Well Geri, thanks a lot for your time.

Dow: All right, thank you Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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My 7-year-old twin boys have read the entire Harry Potter series. Before that, it was an illustrated version of the Hobbit. Star Wars comic books preceded that. We go to the library every week where they can pick out whatever they want to read. Needless to say, they are reading several grade levels above their peers. Until they were 6, we read to them every night before bed. They have limited access to TV and video games (30 min per day). Between those two policies, they have developed a love of reading without much effort our part. I don't know if they would like to read the books mentioned in this story, but there are lots of great books out there. We're just happy they love to read - don't care much what it is (within reason, of course).

As for paying for good grades...we are trying that...the jury is still out

Despite my pleas of "but all my friends get paid for A's," my parents never paid me for grades. However, I do remember a conversation back in the 2nd or 3rd grade with my father. He sat me down and pulled out my report card: there were all A's, divided among A's, A+'s, and A-'s. He pointed at an A- and with a very stern tone said that it was obvious that I wasn't trying hard enough and that I could do better. He set the expectation. I ended up graduating highschool as valedictorian and college as Summa cum Laude. I now have a successful career in the military and am pursuing a masters in applied physics. I feel sorry for any children I might have in the future because they won't be getting a dime for their grades either.

Alfie Kohn persuasively argues that incentives are often counterproductive in education, business, and other contexts. For instance, he reports a study of a reading program: one group of kids was given pizza if they read a certain number of books; the other was not. During the program, the kids in the pizza group read more books BUT after that, they read FEWER. It was as if they learned that the important thing about summer reading was getting pizza, not reading. See Kohn's book, Punished by Rewards. (He's written a lot: that's just the one I've read.)

Kohn's website is http://www.alfiekohn.org/

Perhaps you could interview him. It would be a valuable contribution to this discussion.

Oh how this story brought back the memories! In 1990 I paid my then 12 year old daughter $25 to sit for the SAT exam as part of the Duke Talent Identification Program. That was the last time I paid a bribe to her. The rest of the story rests entirely on her actions and my supporting her along the way.

That bribe took her from feeling like an out of place kid who did not fit in because she liked to learn to a challenged young woman in college at the ripe old age of 14 as she pursued her love of learning. Several asked if I was crazy to deprive her of her high school years. I did not deprive her of anything. She chose to apply, write the six essays required for entrance, interview and take all steps necessary for entrance short of the parent's statement and figuring out the financing. She went to dances, she learned to drive, she had fun with a group of young women with whom she had something in common ... that desire to learn. She found a passion for theatre and a knack for business. She graduated from college at 18 and has been employed and self-supporting, living on her own until she moved to Wisconsin with her husband in 2007. She is on the board of her community theatre and, after years of working for others, has downsized her employment while she develops plans for a business of her own.

A few years after her graduation, she wondered if she was much of a "success" compared to others in her class. I pointed out she paid her bills, supported herself, paid her taxes, had bought a new car and was earning more a year than her mother ever had ... I considered and still consider that a success. My daughter, the high school "dropout," challenged her mother to go back to school and finish her college degree. Although I was on the 30 year plan, I am pleased to say she raised her mother to be a college graduate. So I wonder who was the true beneficiary of that bribe?

I'm an English teacher and a parent. I feel your pain. I've taught both the Odyssey and Great Expectations. In short, they are both about the quest for identity - a search adolescents in one way or another are involved in. I think it is great your son and daughter have the common experience of reading Dickens and can discuss it. When these works first appeared and for many years following, they involved a community of listeners and readers as they were spoken (the Odyssey) or published in installments (Great Expectations). No matter what the state of education, the shared common experience of reading these universal stories can transcend grades and test scores as they offer a family a chance to share and discuss. Bottom line: read with your kids, don't pay them to read. It's a better investment.

Dow: So I figured $20 a book was reasonable.
Ryssdal: Oh man. See, I'm not going to read "The Odyssey" for $20.


Yeah, and you're not 14, either.
When you're 14, twenty bucks is a lot more than when you're, oh, 41.
As an early teen, I would have digested the Odyssey (and a whole lot more) in a NY minute for an S-note.

Something that was missing from this story is mention of what the desired end goal was from the summer reading. If the end goal is to have the student “plow through” the text, then paying students will work. However, as an English teacher, I have never wanted my students to read words without putting thought behind them. That is something that money can’t buy. My 8 year old daughter could “read” Great Expectations, but she wouldn’t understand it, much like the student in your story. The mentioned student’s only motivation will be to get the money not to actually think, learn, and grow as a student. I will admit that summer reading is inherently flawed in that students don’t like it and, unless the parents value the educational benefit of reading, no one is there supporting the educational goals of the student. That does not mean, however, that pay is helpful in any way but to further students’ misplaced motivation. Students see school (high school especially) as something they have to do, something to get through instead of a learning opportunity and something that will make them better people and citizens. As a society we need to make learning for the sake of learning a priority.
See Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards

I'm the mom in the story and I'd have to say the conflict I felt about it was around some of the very good points you raised. When I heard the original story I thought, what the heck, and looked around for some way to quickly try it out at home. I picked the books as an easy, concrete goal. My daughter also was part of the experiment but in her case it was an on-line class and I was trying to get her to finish before the deadline to make all of our lives less stressed out.

We are big readers in our family and our kids are always happy to grab a book. When my son finished Great Expectations he and his sister (she read it when she had the class) had some very entertaining discussions about the plot and Dickens. I am not sure what the school's motivation was in requiring reading over the summer and why those books in particular were picked as that wasn't shared with parents.

We spent a lot of effort when they were in elementary school sending them somewhere that focused totally on learning for enrichment, fun, and growth. We've had a hard time since then keeping that going. High school has been especially tough because of the huge emphasis on grades and competition to get into the best colleges.

I agree that the educational system we have in the US is flawed. I'm kind of at a loss how to contribute to a fix.

I wish all my students had parents who were willing to discuss literature with their students like you!
I'm currently using/developing a program where students don’t see their grades for individual assignments. Instead, I meet with them one-on-one twice a marking period to discuss their progress in class in order to take the focus off of grades. It’s difficult fighting against years of “training” that focuses on grades and GPA. I teach in a very competitive district and teach advanced students which makes it all the more difficult. I wouldn’t have assigned those works for summer reading for reasons I’ve explained already.
Thank you for helping to bring the subject up to a wider audience.

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