R U Studying?

Roland Fryer and Joel Klein are back at it again, trying innovative approaches to help students in the New York City schools learn.

Fryer, who is a tenured professor at Harvard, a frequent co-author of mine, and Chief Equality Officer in the New York City school system, was the driving force behind a pilot program now ongoing in New York City that gives kids financial incentives for doing well in school.

Yesterday, the 2 of them rolled out a new program which will put special cell phones into the hands of select students. Rewarding good performance and behavior with cell phones and minutes is just a small part of the overall goal, however. Another part is using these cell phones to communicate with the kids. Teachers and students can text back and forth about homework assignments. Celebrities (or everyday success stories like graduates of the high school who have gone on to be doctors) can send positive messages over the network.

Perhaps most importantly, the hope is that linking school performance to access to the hottest new technology will make excelling in school cool, or at least less stigmatizing than it otherwise seems to be in many schools.

My prediction: it will not be long before a bunch of NYC high school students are emailing the Freakonomics blog to complain about our partial RSS feed.


Giving the good students cell phones that enable them to contact their teachers for extra help seems slightly counterintuitive to me. Wouldn't it be better to develop some kind of cheap reliable method of connecting teachers with the students that do not excel? Perhaps even a completely anonymous service. Example: My old high school operates online forums for general discussion and help with school work. No one needs to know that the guy asking for help is the starting quarterback, or other steretypically 'cool' subject of the high school environment.

In short this is somewhat like providing the best cardiologist to a person with no heart illness.

I'm not saying rewarding good results is bad...just this sort of reward seems a bit backward.


The problem with our education system to today is how students are being taught to learn. Teachers are only concerned with the aspect of memorizing facts then actual being concerned with practices in the real world. All students have to do is purge and dump facts which is not really learning. The majority of students end up learning nothing by the time they graduate because the majority of the classes are only about memorizing certain dates and facts. Technology could help students become interested again but I believe that teachers need to reform the way kids are being taught!

Leland Witter

I sympathize with the challenge of teaching, but I don't understand how people choose the career and then complain about the low pay, hard work, and time commitment.

It's like a garbage man complaining about the smell.

If you didn't understand what the job entailed before selecting that path, then I don't know if you are qualified to teach my children.


As the spouse of a teacher, I'm frustrated with the ever increasing ways of keeping teachers plugged into their jobs. She is not paid enough to be texting students about their assignments at all hours (And of course she would be paying for her minutes, right?). Whether this helps students or not, it's not good for teachers mental well-being or family life. There should be more focus on decreasing the huge percentage of new teachers who leave the profession in their first three years. Taking care of our teachers is the best way to improve student outcomes.


Where can I learn about other programs that give kids financial incentives for doing well in school?


Chloe --
That idea sounds very interesting. I wish I had a way to really encourage my students' parents to be more involved in their day-to-day schoolwork. Most are intimidated by their negative school experiences or the inability to understand the work their children bring home (and I teach third grade!)

As for the post, what is really wrong with good grades being their own reward? The ability for a scholarship to college or trade school seems more appropriate than a cell phone. And certainly a lot more useful in the long run.



I came up with an idea for education based on your comments about "Deliberate Practice." Here's how I would do it....

Very simply, for each grade level, an interactive test is prepared. Let's say this particular section is on, say, 9th grade-level history...and in this segement, on the French Revolution in particular.

That history is presented in a (perhaps DVD) format that may be a compilation of the in-room teaching of the best 9th grade history teacher in America, historical pictures/footage, perhaps select scenes from well-done movies about the French Revolution, bullet points that emphasize certain points to the viewer. Then comes the really cool part...they take an interactive test.

Lets say there are 200 questions about the French Revolution that every child should know the answer to in order to demonstrate A-level mastery of the subject.

OK, we create 200 questions...then turn around and create 4 or 5 variations of each question/concept to hold in reserve.

The student begins to take the test....

They are doing quite well--each correct answer is immediately "rewarded" with a "You are Correct!" or some such statement, perhaps along with a little blurb that demonstrates why it is the case.

But lets say that on one question, they answer "E" and the correct answer is "A." What happens? Immediately, the student is informed that that is incorrect...and a blurb comes up--or perhaps a 1-minute replay of the applicable portion of the DVD so that the student gets an immediate refresher.

The student cannot answer the question until this is completed (to ensure that the student doesn't just guess).

They then answer the question again. If they get it wrong, the blurb repeats, perhaps with some additional information, until the student either gets it right (and when they do, the next paragraph comes into play)...or is flagged for failing to master this subject (say after 3 misses).

If they get it right, great. BUT...remember those other versions of the same question? well, one or two of those will now be "inserted" into the test somewhere along the line, so that the student will have to demonstrate mastery of the question at some point later on in the test (not immediately, since it will just be short-term memory--we want the knoweledge to be long term).

If they get these later questions correct, great. If not, they go through this process again. After missing, it, say, 3 times, it is flagged for a loss of a full unit (while a single miss might be a loss of only half-a-point, etc.).

This, to my mind, incorporates teaching and testing into a single thing. The testing IS teaching the person, to some degree, using a form of deliberate practice (immediate feedback) that can help students master the subject.

Of course, this would work well with any subject outside of composition, I imagine.

Levitt, how about using this in your course...and if it works, sending me million dollars?



" My prediction: it will not be long before a bunch of NYC high school students are emailing the Freakonomics blog to complain about our partial RSS feed. "

THEN will you fix it?


My prediction is that if celebrities send out texts over the network, it won't be long before the smart students have sold their phones to the kids who want notes from Beyonce.


Science Magazine had a great special issue a few weeks ago about 'cities'. One of the reports what on this exact incentive structure, which was first introduced in Mexico (I could be mistaken on the country, though). The program there has done wonders, because parents are paid to send their children to school in addition to receiving incentives on immunizing their children and taking them to get regular health check-ups. In this case, the program works well because rather than having teenagers help with the family business, there is an economic reason to go to school. In the same article, the NYC program was criticized because so many different factors are involved. The article also mentioned that just because more students are showing up for class, doesn't mean they are getting a better education.

I agree with above posters, pay teachers more, allow them to develop their own curriculum and train them to do so...that will help. The idea of kids even more plugged in to technology, and not playing outside, bothers me. This is coming from someone studying S&T policy, so I heart technology, but in these situations, I is simply treating the symptoms.



I'm not sure that keeping kids & teachers connected 24x7 is the key to a good education. We used to provide a good education, without this sort of "plugging in." Commenter #1 has a salient point: The last thing we need to do to teachers is make them work 24x7. (The same is true for ANY type of worker in ANY field; even people like doctors who do get calls at all hours, have defined call-time-limits.)

I'm willing to bet that text messages sent after-hours are going to wait for replies. The goal of "immediate connection, immediate communication" will not be met. Not unless additional personnel are hired to respond to these messages at all hours ... which I'm pretty sure is NOT what will happen here.

This means this whole thing isn't much more than a gimmick. It makes parents and possibly the public at large feel good, but really, it won't accomplish anything.

Much more effective (and less gimmicky) solutions would be found, by revisiting why education worked so much better in the past, than it does now. There are reasons public education has declined since (say) the 1950s. Technology is not the answer, because it is not the reason for this decline.



As a teacher who did leave the profession after one year of teaching(but is still invovled in public education), this seems to be just another hare-brained scheme.

If you examine educational research, the factor with the greatest correlation with student achievement is parental education level. If you are the child of parents who value education, chances are you will do pretty well in school.

Far too many kids, especially African-Americans, come from broken families where education is not valued. I remember reading recently that while over 75% of white, asian, and latino children live with two adults, only about 30% of African-American children do.

If you want to solve the problem of low achievment among African-American kids, first you have to solve the socialogical problems that often leave them living with a single adult, who in most cases is poorly educated and not home when the child gets home after school.



@ Leland - It's not so much the complaint of the time involved. A teacher knows that going in. It's the fact that the time involved changes. Every new contract has the teacher coming in earlier and/or staying later. Teachers now have to come in before Labor Day (in NYC at least). This wasn't the case for many teachers when they started.

Gene Shiau

Oh phooey. As if allowing students to bring cell phones to school isn't enough, now we have to reward them with cell phones and minutes? Cell phones are distractors of learning and studying -- every teacher knows that! If I chose to be plugged in after school, I could help my students using instant messenger services (Trillian was my choice; meebo is probably the new popular favorite). Cell phone and texting just aren't the solution. In fact, if I could get away with it, I would line the walls of my classroom with chicken wire and cut off all RF transmissions!

Hannah K


As a teacher, I take serious offense to your statement, and I am curious as to whether or not you truly understand what the job of a teacher actually entails. I won't comment further because that's not what this article really is about, but I encourage you to talk with a teacher or to go and spend a day (and night because work doesn't end when the kids leave) and perhaps you'll appreciate more deeply how intense a teaching job is.

Often times, I cringe when I read/hear about incentive plans such as this one. Are we really targeting the factors that are disabling these children from being engaged and successful, or are we simply just dangling a worm in front of the canary in the mine? While there are definite parenting responsibilities, it's not always due to the parents' fault that their students are not doing well in school. when we get rid of programs in schools that gave an avenue through which disinterested (and sometimes learning disabled) students can find a connection (thanks, NCLB), we end up further marginalizing and turning away these students.



Leland: Personally, I think it's very important to keep hammering away at those facts - low pay and long hours - because they are ultimately determined by voters deciding what to pay for education. Too often, people have a disconnect between what they expect from public education and what they are willing to pay for education (Don't worry the teachers will absorb the burden!). Perhaps a private education system would do a better job of rewarding good teachers, but when that happens everybody will be too busy gawking at all the flying pigs.


To # 17..how about we make the teacher dance and sing...that may drive the point even further. The problem with the American education is that teachers hands are tied. In any other country kids are not asked whehter they want to learn nor are offered any incentives. YOU MAKE THEM LEARN!!!



I did not mean to imply that this is rote learning. Not at all. Before the test is taken, the teaching is presented in a manner that most conducive to learning--and may even have a means of questions/answers.

But the point is that our tests today are just tests. They do not add the element of "deliberate practice" which has been shown to be so effective in learning (i.e., the immediate response of "Correct" or "Incorrect" and what why).

If this could be incorporated into tests, this would be of great assistance.

Further, it doesn't need only be with facts and figures, etc. But even so, those are important, are they not?

I'm thinking the the CONCEPTS behind, say, the French Revolution can be very well communicated and tested. For that matter, there could be "extra credit" given if students ADD to the answer their own, written, thoughts, giving them the opportunity to express their ideas, etc.

Further, this need not be the ONLY way children learn. There should be classroom experience, with the open debate of ideas, that goes along with it all.

In any case, for the BASICS, I can't imagine any more effective means of communicating mathematical principles, etc., than to make the test ALSO demand active interactionn while providing immediate feedback.



One major problem is that teachers must train the children to pass the big standardized test that gets their school more money. I have four kids from Pre-K to 8th grade, and so far my 4 y.o. is the only one that isn't driven like in an SAT prep course.

The cell phone thing makes me really, really nervous. Many cases of inappropriate/abusive teacher-student relationships involve casual contact like texting or e-mail, where the line of authority figure vs. buddy is easily blurred. Putting teachers on the same platform as a teen girl's best friend is just begging for trouble. Kids need defined boundaries: it's the same mechanism as when a parent tries to be their kid's friend *instead of* (not in addition to) their parent.

And of course I agree that it is hardly fair to pay more academic attention to those kids who clearly can manage their own education while those in need flounder (and whose parents are at wit's end).


Princess Leia

I think I've commented on this before...

Are only a 'select' few getting the phones or are they for an entire inclusive group like the whole school or grade level)? My experience with rewards is that the ones that don't get them may retaliate against those who do (not necessarily at school when teachers are 'watching').