Roland Fryer on The Colbert Report

I’m a bit late getting to this, but I just saw that my friend Roland Fryer appeared on The Colbert Report on Monday. He was — officially — talking about his current experiments with providing incentives for kids to get better grades.

While it is pretty hard to look good next to Colbert, Roland pulled it off. And it takes a special kind of economist to begin by offering Colbert a performance incentive — a crisp $10 bill if he asked good questions.

See the clip below (or here):

Slightly related: Who knew that Joe Stiglitz is now also working in film? Around the world with Joseph Stiglitz was just released. But talk about a limited release — its only U.S. showing was earlier this week.

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  1. Tom says:

    In England we already have a fully functioning version of this for students over 16, though money is handed out based on household income and attendance records.

    Personally as a student myself, I absolutely abhor it on many levels. I go to the best school in my city, yet even the people that get it in my school blow it on alcohol and/or drugs every weekend, it’s dressed up by my government as ‘maintainence’ but it’s basically a subsidy for kids to buy illegal substances.

    It’s ethically wrong imo, and I consider myself a pragmatist. There are millions of teenagers all over the world that would give their right arm to have a free education system, do you think that they could even comprehend that in America you not only provide free education, but also pay kids to go to school?

    I recognise that if it does show a big improvement in results, then despite these problems it may be a good thing. But again I don’t think it’ll work that well. The money isn’t trivial, but it’s not close to what you could get if you chose to leave education and get a job instead. I also believe that a very high % of these kids eligible for bonuses won’t even be able to attain them because of their failures earlier down the school.

    Fryer said that ‘we’re failing millions of kids’. I have to ask, are we failing them? Or are they failing us? In my view, the state’s mandate in education should be to give as good an opportunity to every student possible. If kids aren’t going to school because they’re can’t afford the bus fair, or they can’t pay for textbooks, then I absolutely support financial backing. But past that, I don’t believe it should be the governments role to incentivise students for further education in this way.

    I’ll be very interested to see how it turns out though and really appreciate the work done by people like Fryer.

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  2. Sam says:

    Despite all of Colbert’s attempts to make Fryer look like a fool, they actually got some actual discussion- and Colbert looked stumped himself a few times.
    And as a high schooler (in America) myself, I believe that the government should do as much as it is allowed to try to increase the high school graduation rate.

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  3. Patrick says:

    The education system in the United States was designed by people funded by the great Robber Barrons of the late 19th/early 20th century to homogenize and stupify the critical thinking capacities of the work-force and engender a consumer culture capable of keeping up with the output of automated industry. Throwing money at it is just as broken and zombified as throwing money at a banking industry based on a similarly broken model at the brink of its mathematical limits.

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  4. David S. says:

    Reinforcing outcomes (grades) isn’t the best method to accomplish this goal (have students learn more).

    It is much better to reinforce the *behaviors* that lead to getting good grades (showing up, bringing supplies to class, bringing home the home work list, showing the homework list to parents, doing the homework, turning it in, etc.)

    This breaks up complicated goal into small pieces that can be accomplished. It rewards effort (instead of innate talent).

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  5. Briancms says:

    I think its a great idea, not so sure about how well it’s going to work though.

    I definitely agree with Tom at #1 though, I can totally see it being blown off on booze over the weekend. Especially if you consider that the children you’re trying to incentivize to stay in school may live in underprivilidged neighborhoods with a high occurence of drugs and such. Maybe we’ll just end up with really smart druggies…or more likely, one smart guy and a bunch of other people who copy off him.

    I’m also a student myself, and i guess i’ve seen this sytem implemented in the homes of some of my friends’ house: they would get money for whatever grades they got. It always pissed me off because i didn’t….Still most of these kids seemed to get a nice allowance or something, because they kinda blew off school anyways, i figure they had other sources of income and an extra 20 bucks or whatnot wasn’t worth the trouble.

    I really hope it works, but i wouldn’t be surprised if teachers start asking for incentives, throw a standerized test at them and measure progress, if you want better teachers pay better money

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  6. JRH says:

    I agree with #1. My mom teaches 6th grade math, and every year she has a bunch of kids who simply refuse to do their homework or even to bring a pencil to class (when they come to class at all). On the first week she has the parents sign a form stating that they understand that there will be daily homework, and yet later in the school year when she hands out poor grades, those same parents get mad at her and claim that they didn’t know their kid wasn’t doing his homework.

    The primary responsibility is with the student: if he doesn’t do his work, then he deserves to fail. The next responsibility is with the student’s parents: their job as his parents is to make sure he does his work. If he’s doing all of his work and still getting low grades, then (and only then) should we look to see whether the teacher is doing an adequate job.

    Maybe this money thing will work; we’ll see. But if it does, it’s not that it will be making up for a deficiency in the school system, it’s that it will be making up for lousy parents who failed to instill a value of education in their children from a young age.

    Oh, and Tom, in America, public schools are completely free: school buses are free, text books are free, for certain income levels even the lunch is free. Kids aren’t skipping school because they can’t afford to attend.

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  7. Brian says:

    @ #1

    Though I do agree that there is a danger in the students’ misappropriation of the funds they receive, I do believe that this incentivization is pragmatic. First, students who do decide to drop out of school often do so because they misjudge the benefits of getting a job (i.e. they get paid much more in the short term, but fail to recognize that in the long term their wage prospects are dim). A reward system for doing well in school might cause them to rethink this cost-benefit analysis. Second, a broadly educated populace provides a strong positive externality to all of society, and the basics of economics tell us that the state should encourage such activity.

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  8. Mike says:

    I think there is something to this, but I think the incentives would have to be linked to microtargets instead of broad grade based ones to be effective. As an example, $2.50 for an A on a test, $2 for a B on the same test, $1 for a C on the same test and nothing for a D or F, which would lead to sustained effort instead of the minimum to get an A, which already is incentivized in the long run.

    In fact, I would argue that kids have an incredibly high discount rate, so that constant feedback is what would be needed to make incentivization necessary.

    As to subsidizing underage drinking or whatever – who cares what the kids spend the cash on, if it does make a difference in long run outcomes. If that same 15 year old who spent his earnings on rum ends up with a masters degree as a teacher or some other skilled job instead of leeching welfare off the system when he or she was 30 years old, that is likely a net positive.

    As an aside, when I was in high school 5 years ago, AP teachers received incentives for how students performed on the AP exam – $75 for a 5, $50 for a 4, $25 for a 3. My Biology teacher offered to cut us a check for our earnings on the down low, and I can say, that definitely motivated more people to show up to the review session we had the night before the AP Exam. And helped fund getting more drunk in August, after scores came back, but it was a suburban school district where the same peer group would have been going on the college track anyhow.

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