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Thompson: Roland Fryer's Learning Process

Paygrades "’To my surprise, incentive programs that rewarded process seemed to be more effective than those that rewarded outcomes,’" said Roland Fryer, regarding his latest experiment. Fryer belatedly recognized something that had long been the centerpiece of educational wisdom. Teachers have long been taught to concentrate on their students’ "observable behaviors." We have always been taught to jealously guard time on "task on task." Teachers have always urged kids to focus on what they can control, and not get carried away with the issues of others. "Sweat the details," we have hoped, and learning will follow.

Fryer also concluded "it might be less effective to give teachers incentive pay (test scores of their students) relative to inputs (staying after school to tutor students).

Fryer thus rejected the "do what I say, not what I do" fetish of "outcomes based accountability." Being held accountable for teaching professionally from bell-to-bell (or after school) is common sense. Obviously, accountability should be a factor in educational reforms. But we have bought the weird idea that accountability can drive reform, and that holding people accountable primarily for the behaviors of others is not an absurdity.

Speaking of weird, the study offers plenty of grins for those of us who enjoy the process of teaching and learning. Fryer showed that students "had little idea about how to translate their enthusiasm (for incentives) into tangible action steps." In one focus group there was a student who had learned that she had the option of seeking help from a teacher, but the others responded with "blank stares and shrugs," with one student saying "I did my homework, what (expletive deleted) else they want?"

When students were challenged to make a new "law" as an example of a pedagogical tool, the nearly unanimous response was "to take incentive tests every day."

Illustrating the hypothesis that students with greater social and familial supports were better able to take advantage of the incentives, the study recounted the story of the Chinese immigrant who told her illiterate grandmother that she had earned a $30 incentive, the grandmother responded "Jimmy next door earned more than you."

The most hilarious parts of the study were unintentional. For instance, Chicago schools received a financial incentive for returning 90% of student surveys, but the return rate was only 35%, and ½ of the surveys were lost!

The study concluded that "the concern ... that rewarding students will negatively impact their ‘love of learning’ seems unwarranted." They dismissed that timeless issue based on the results of student surveys!?!

My favorite passages discussed "how to transform excitement about rewards into tangible investment choices that lead to increases in achievement." Hypothesizing that teachers might help students learn how to learn, the study speculated "if effective teachers are an important complementary input to student incentives in producing test scores, we should notice a correlation between the value-added of a student’s teacher and the impact of incentives on achievement." To find out whether such a correlation was found, you will have to read the study, but I’ll give a hint. If such a correlation had been found, it would have been featured in headlines, wouldn’t it?

Seriously, the discussion of incentives for improving scores on adaptive tests was particularly illustrative, because on those tests the students could "quickly move out of their comfort zone and into material that was not covered in class." These students were "taken aback" by adaptive test questions and complained that the tests "felt arbitrary." So if we're preparing kids for a world that will never throw them a curve, pay for performance may make sense. 

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