Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Old School Try

My roommate uses MSNBC for background noise, and all today they kept re-running a program on innovation in America, and how it’s been falling off in recent years, and what we can do to revive it. Of course it fibbled off into What The Government Can Do, but it somehow never mentioned something as simple as improving general education.

For generations now, everyone from Certified Experts to the kids themselves have bemoaned the rotten state of the public schools in America and made suggestions for improving it. Some of those ideas have been tried, and some of them have worked a little.

None of them have worked as well as one idea you’ve probably never heard of.

More than 25 years ago, in one of the Midwestern states beginning with “I”, there was a school district whose ratings were so bad that the school board grew desperate enough to try a truly radical experiment.

It paid the kids to go to school and get good grades.

The kids studied all week and were given tests on Friday. The teachers graded the tests over the weekend and paid the kids on Monday, so any student who wanted money for the weekend had to learn to save it. The kids were paid for every hour they’d spent in class that week, and the amount was determined by their grades. For the high-school students, an A would give them $4 an hour – which, in those days, was legal minimum wage – a B paid $3, a C yielded $2, a D was $1, and an F paid nothing. Junior-high students got half that, and grade-school kids got a quarter of it. Of course, any student who acted up in class got an F for that hour.

Can you guess what happened to the students’ grades, and school behavior?

Yes, grades skyrocketed and discipline problems took a nosedive. Over the course of the school year, the truant officer and several other bureaucrats common to public schools found themselves with nothing to do. The accountant assigned to monitor the experiment reported that the savings on school-property destruction, alone, more than paid for the students’ wages. Most unwisely, he also went on to say that the school could now afford to fire those bureaucrats.

That was the kiss of death. The school board terminated the experiment at the end of the year, swore the teachers to secrecy, then scattered them throughout the rest of the state – and beyond. All records of the experiment, particularly its results, were locked up under every legal seal of secrecy that civilian government officials could get. Ah, but teachers gossip among themselves, especially after they’ve retired, which is how my mother – a music teacher in New Jersey – eventually heard about it.

The lessons to be learned here are obvious. First, paying the kids to go to school, behave themselves and get good grades gets solid results. Second, threatening the jobs of government bureaucrats is dangerous to everyone else.

14 comments:

Ori Pomerantz said...

Paying people to make them do something? That would never work! I'd write a long explanation why, but I have to go get some work done ;-).

Seriously, I suspect that a lot of the purpose of modern education is not to prepare kids for adulthood as much as delay the transition.

I'm not sure how to handle it as a parent (my oldest is eight, so it is not yet an issue), but I think I'll try to teach them a profession while they are in high school. That way they'll be able to pay their own way in college, which is conducive to adulthood.

Aya Katz said...

Innovation is unlikely to come from people who get good grades when you pay them to get good grades and bad grades when you don't pay them. Innovation comes from independent thinkers, those with internal motivation for learning and doing. These are usually the children who are reading a book in class, but it's far more advanced than the textbook. They sometimes get bad grades, because they are involved in solving a problem they assigned themselves and are bored by a curriculum designed for the lowest common denominator.

Paying students for grades is like paying factory worker for filling quotas. That is where conformity comes in: not innovation.

I'm not saying we don't need conformists, too. It takes all kinds to make a world. But the reason innovation has fallen off is that people who think for themselves are not rewarded by the corporate structure.

As for how threatening the jobs of bureaucrats hurts everyone, I'm not sure how you meant that, Leslie. Did you mean, let's stand them all to the wall? Or did you mean you're happy about this, because it will help support public unions?

Ori Pomerantz said...

But the reason innovation has fallen off is that people who think for themselves are not rewarded by the corporate structure.

Really? Where I work we are constantly looking for better (cheaper or more effective) ways to do our jobs. We have to, our competitors are doing the same.

While huge innovations rarely happen in large corporations, those corporations typically buy startups that do such innovations. This provides incentive for investors to invest in those startups.

Aya Katz said...

Ori, it's not a good thing that those who start a company have no incentive to keep working at it.

Somehow, after the initial burst of brilliance fades, the number crunchers take over, and they pay people for agreeing with them.

Anyway, don't you agree that there are different types of people in this world, and the ones you can motivate with a salary are not the innovators?

They may be very nice people, and they make sure everything keeps running smoothly even when it's not fun or exciting. They may be making a very valuable contribution to society. I'm not saying they are bad people. I'm just saying they are not innovators.

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Ori. Oh indeed, teach the kids how to get and keep a job while they're still in school, before they have to actually go out and earn a living. You'd be surprised how many kids get out of high school without a clue how to get and keep a job -- so they become slackers, living off their parents for decades, or crooks, or welfare bums. Yes, I damn-well blame the schools as much as the parents for this.

Hi, Aya. Come on, when have schools not taught conformity? Kids with independent minds became innovators, nonetheless. Yes, paying kids to get good grades is like paying factory workers to meet quotas -- and what do you think a lot of them will be doing for a living after they graduate? It's the ones who get good enough grades to go to college who will be rewarded for innovation -- which, these days, requires a solid educational grounding.

What's dangerous about threatening the jobs of bureaucrats -- that's the paper-pushers, not those who do real work like firemen, cops, teachers, sewer workers and so on -- is that those paper-pushers will then use their political power to shoot down the innovation that threatens their jobs, no matter how good or necessary it is.

Bureaucracy, like the quest for cheap labor, is a lethal curse on our economy.

Aya Katz said...

Leslie, getting and keeping a job is mostly a social thing. I got out of law school, having a BA and a JD, passed the bar, and I still didn't know how to get a job. People with good social skills but lower grades than mine were able to get jobs. I had to open my own law practice. I know lots of high school drop outs who have jobs, and many others who run their own business.

So, no, I don't think good grades have much to do with the ability to get a job, any more than they have to do with being an innovator. In previous generations, when education was not mandatory, people had no trouble with that. You don't need to waste twelve years just on interview skills and dressing for success. The normal people know all that instinctively, and those of us who don't may never pick it up.

If people were still being apprenticed to employers at an early age, rather than forced to stay in school, they would also not have trouble understanding how to get a job.

But it's not fair to take everyone's money and everyone's children and force them all to sit in the same classrooms that are geared to turn out only one type of person. If paying people to study worked so well, why not let each parent use his own money to do so?

ravenclaw-eric said...

The thing is, there'd be a big, big, big knee-jerk against the idea of "paying kids to do what they should be doing anyway." Never mind that we pay a lot of people to do things that are done by volunteers in some instances---my little town has a volunteer fire department, but big cities' FDs are paid.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Anyway, don't you agree that there are different types of people in this world, and the ones you can motivate with a salary are not the innovators?

I disagree. These innovations were made by people on the AT&T payroll. These were made by people who got a salary from IBM.

Aya Katz said...

Ori, Bell Labs started out strong, but the last two paragraphs of the wikipedia article say it all:

"As of July 2008, however, only four scientists remained in physics basic research according to a report by the scientific journal Nature.

On August 28, 2008, Alcatel-Lucent announced it was pulling out of basic science, material physics, and semiconductor research, and it will instead focus on more immediately marketable areas including networking, high-speed electronics, wireless networks, nanotechnology and software."

The history of most successful companies includes being founded by a strong innovator, recruiting some good people who are more motivated by the work than the pay, and then getting muddled down by middle management types, stock investors, govt contracts, until finally nobody who is brilliant can bear to work there anymore!

idiotgrrl said...

You said the incentives were similar to paying factory workers "... which is what most of them will be doing anyway." Wrong ... not for the past 30-odd years. Not unless they move to some undeveloped country that pays $0.02/day. Why? Because manufacturing moved offshore long ago, in the never-ending quest for "productivity", defined as "Getting more work out of fewer people at the lowest possible cost."

So, no, the kids won't be working in factories. They won't be that lucky.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Aya: The history of most successful companies includes being founded by a strong innovator, recruiting some good people who are more motivated by the work than the pay, and then getting muddled down by middle management types, stock investors, govt contracts, until finally nobody who is brilliant can bear to work there anymore!

Ori: True. But my point is that there are innovators who are happy drawing a salary.

Aya Katz said...

Ori,my point is: even when they do draw a salary, it's not the salary that motivates them. Don't you think access to the labs and the expensive equipment and being allowed to work on important problems was the real draw?

I believe in the free market and in making money. But too many people mistakenly think that you can bribe people to work for anyone under any conditions. Not so. The people who will do anything just for the money are not the innovators. And that's why offering a higher salary to the same person doesn't make them produce more!

Ori Pomerantz said...

Aya: I believe in the free market and in making money. But too many people mistakenly think that you can bribe people to work for anyone under any conditions. Not so. The people who will do anything just for the money are not the innovators.

Ori: I agree. Innovators need to eat, so salaries are extremely useful, but they are not a sufficient condition for innovation. Some companies understand how to get innovation out of their employees, others don't.

But a lot of innovation does occur in a corporate environment. It just happens in departments and companies where management understands how to get golden eggs without butchering the goose.

KateGladstone said...

Ow way to pull off a pay-the-students program — without accidentally inciting bureaucrats to terminate it — would be this:

Get some company like Microsoft to run the program and pay the students' wages-for-grades:
Microsoft and some other fims already provide various scholarships, set up educational programs, and make charitable donations of goods and money and services to numerous public and private schools and educational programs all over the world

Have the company administer this, under the name of a "scholarship program" open to any student at any participating school: as long as the student meets, and who continues to meet, program requirements. (Scholarship programs can include just about anything the scholarship-provider wants them to, for just about any goal the provider wants — for example, the "Miss America Pageant" is technically & legally a scholarship program and this is actually specified in its articles of incorporation: the program's specified purpose is to reward, monetarily and otherwise, young women of a particular age-range who are judged to meet the scholarship-program's various requirements. If college girls can be offered a scholarship that requires, among other things, that they stay virgin for a year to keep the scholarship, then schoolkids can certainly be offered a scholarship that pays them weekly or fortnightly or monthly if they qualify & if they keep on qualifying.)

Who sends in the schools'/students' applications to participate? Who collects/computes/forwards to Microsoft the grade information? THAT will be what keeps the bureaucrats busy and happy: The school bureaucrats can be gainfully employed with such tasks as identifying (and forwarding to the scholarship company) the records of those students who qualify for the next payment from Microsoft.
In return, Microsoft might ask for the right to visit, at its own discretion, the school of any student who had received a Microsoft Student Award payment since the last time that Microsoft paid a visit. These "spot visits" (maybe once or twice a year) would be quality-control, to check that the students' performance was being accurately reported ... and, not incidentally, to give the school bureaucrats yet more work to (namely, managing those visits).
Could this work? If so — who, reading this, knows/works at/owns a company that could be persuaded to pull it off under the name of a "scholarship program"?