Debate Magazine

Reforming Our Schools with High-tech Cell Phones (from the Archives)

By Stevemiranda

Today I saw the abstract of an academic paper submitted by Roland G. Fryer, CEO of Harvard’s Education Innovation Laboratory. In “Teacher Incentives and Student Achievement: Evidence from New York City Public Schools,” the author writes,

“I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior. If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools.”

* * *

This is not surprising. The academic literature of the past 40 years has relentlessly confirmed this finding.

Further research about the Education Innovation Laboratory however, yielded less encouraging news. While Fryer opposes giving cash rewards to teachers, he seems enthusiastic about giving money to students!

For example, one program uses cash incentives to “encourage 9th and 10th grade students to get better grades and pass their classes.” Another gives middle school students “financial rewards for performance in school across five measures: attendance, behavior, and three additional academic measures selected by each school (such as homework completion or grades).”

(New York City is piloting a particularly intriguing program that gives students access to a high-tech cell phone called the “Million.” From the Education Innovation Laboratory web site:

“The Million operates in two completely separate modes: School’s In and School’s Out. During school hours, the Million operates completely as a teaching tool. Outside school hours, it operates as a regular cell phone packed with great functions and benefits that teenagers covet.”)

I have no doubt that the strategies advocated by Education Innovation Laboratory are effective at helping kids complete more of their homework and earn higher grades. But as with most education reform measures, it starts with the wrong question in the first place. Since homework and grades are primarily measures of how well students follow directions, we’re essentially creating programs designed to produce graduates whose primary skill will be compliance.

This is another area in which scientific data is clear (see video below): offering extrinsic motivators (like money) will make students more compliant, but harms their ability to succeed at tasks that require higher-level thinking.

So while students may grow more adept at following directions, they’re less likely to learn to interpret directions and, perhaps most importantly, give directions.

* * *

Here’s a radical suggestion: rather than treating teenagers like a alien beings that need to be controlled by high tech devices and manipulated with extrinsic motivators, what if we simply made a commitment to showing them respect? What if we created environments in which we started by asking kids what their goals were, and listened to their answers without judgment?

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