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.


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.



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.


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.

David S.

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).


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



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.



@ #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.


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.



I think this might work, I mean money has always worked as an incentive for anyone. Also it is common that children who drop out of school, is to get money elsewhere, either working or becoming drug dealers. So, if they get rewarded at school, most likely they won't drop out of school.
But, in my opinion then perhaps teachers should get incentives as well. Because with "incentivized" teachers, these students will be able to receive a better education. Perhaps the government must invest more money in education.


As somebody who went to high school in a district that paid $100 for every AP exam score above a 3 (in addition to highly subsidizing the cost of the test), I have to say that incentives programs can work, although they seemed more likely to motivate students who were on the cusp between moderate and high achieving than anybody who was low achieving. That seems natural for something like AP scores, and I have to wonder how it will pan out for more general subject matter. Also--won't this encourage moderately bright kids to avoid more difficult classes, since they receive cash for an 'A' whether they're in the regular, honors, or AP course?


"It's not racism. It's reality. See, the achievement gap in this country is our biggest civil rights concern. We've got 15 million kids in the United States that can't read at grade level. These are facts and reality."

If Fryer recognizes that there is an underlying problem of illiteracy, then why does his incentive program focus on 9th graders who are expected to know how to read to earn their "carrot"? Why offer cash to students instead of something specific they can use to further their education like books?

It's the same problem with food stamps. We see food as a social good, and the government intervenes by offering a specific incentive to buy food and nothing else. While some food stamps do get traded for other things, people are still better off because the food stamps reduce the cost of food creating a substitution effect. If we recognize education as a social good, then why wouldn't we offer a specific incentive to reduce the costs of education and promote lifelong learning?

To close the achievement gap, we need to start giving incentives for learning at a much younger age. I think programs like A Book for Every Child would have better results in the long run:

The real question is what do we, as a people, love? Do we love money to fulfill our desires? Is "getting" an education just a means to satisfy a lust for riches? Or do we love learning for the sake of wisdom, justice, and domestic peace? Why aren't we living out the meaning of our nation's preamble?

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."



great stuff



The issue with not starting at a younger age, is dropout rates of gradeschool are not the same level that dropout rates of highschool. Yes the real issue is to try to perpetuate further learning, but part of that is actually being there. As a highschool teacher I had once said to my class "Even if you copy homework off someone else, at least you might pick something up while copying off them. Its better than not doing it at all" (and here I am in graduate school).

There have been reading incentives in place for over 20 years now, its just that people don't always respond to the incentives. Summer reading programs in my area often gave free baseball tickets if you did 5 book reports each month during the summer (for a total of 3 games if you did 15 reports). But even back then there were other kids my age who said "I don't like baseball" (mind you, we had a horrid team at the time might have been part of it).

Its hard to find incentives that "nearly all" young children value. At a very young age (perhaps when reading needs to be enforced greater) most children don't even know what price tags are. By the age of highschool, teenagers have developed at least an idea of the value of money and face opportunities where they have to trade staying in school for money. The idea is to make school potentially as profitable as working (50 dollars per A per month x 6 classes = $300).

When you can find me one thing that 1,000 6 year olds chosen at random all value that doesn't have immediate diminishing returns (if you give every literate kid as many cookies as they want, you're going to have less of a literacy problem and a greater obesity problem) that's enough motivation to make them not want to just watch TV and play video games, feel free to post it. If its that good that it makes me look foolish, someone reading this will recommend it to be implimented and you can help society/

(Also on the "A Book for Every Child" program, access to books is relatively easy in the United States. Yes, children who grow up with books in their household tend to do better in school, but public libraries lend out books for free. Households where books are a commonplace often reflect parents who put more effort into helping their children learn. Putting a book in a house isn't going to pass some magic knowledge through the pages into the children's mind while they sleep, its about motivating the parents to take a more active role in the child's life)




We may be able to test whether this works in the UK as this school year 100,000 pupils are still waiting to be paid their money due to failures on the part of the private company the government has brought in to administer this.

If the numbers in school fall (or don't!) it may show how much influence this payment has.


My high school actually did something similar to this, although it was an opt-in program. If you opened a bank account with the public credit union attached to my school, you would get something like $10 for every A and $5 for every B. Here is the rub: the money was held until graduation. As soon as you graduated, the money was deposited into your account. This seems to be a great structure to me (to be honest though, the incentives were not too high). Another way to improve it would be automatic enrollment (I never enrolled because I didn't have the time, my sister will be walking away with well over $500 when she graduates soon). But overall, the release at graduation makes the most sense. I love the idea though. Incentives work.


This reminds me of the chapter in the book about teachers cheating on standardized tests in that it creates an incentive for grade inflation.
I also worry about the effectiveness of the reinforcement schedule being five weeks.


What about implementing a point-based system that provides more structure on how students can use their "earnings"? uBoost is a performance-based rewards and recognition platform where by students earn points based on their performance and/or behaviors (teachers or districts can set metrics) and students can redeem points for variety of prizes or donate to charity.