We use direct financial incentives to motivate so many different activities in life. No one expects workers in a fast food restaurant to flip burgers for free. No one expects teachers to show up and teach without getting paid. But when it comes to kids in school, we think that the distant financial rewards they will earn years or decades later should be enough to motivate them, even though for most kids a month or two feels like an eternity.
To learn a little more about whether kids' school effort responds to financial incentives, John List, Suzanne Neckermann, Sally Sadoff, and I carried out a series of field experiments we recently wrote up as a working paper (PDF here). Sally Sadoff (who you might remember from the Freakonomics movie as the woman who works tirelessly to help the students in Chicago Heights), talked about the research on Fox Business News.
Unlike most previous studies involving kids, schools, and payments, in this research we aren’t trying to get kids to study hard or learn more, we were going after something even more simple: just get the student to try hard on the test itself. So we don’t tell the kids about the financial reward ahead of time -- we just surprise them right before they sit down to take the test by offering them up to $20 for improvements.