The Frontal Cortex

Paying Students to Learn

It’s a new pilot program in a few dozen New York City schools: students are given cash rewards in exchange for higher test scores. Jennifer Medina reports:

The fourth graders squirmed in their seats, waiting for their prizes. In a few minutes, they would learn how much money they had earned for their scores on recent reading and math exams. Some would receive nearly $50 for acing the standardized tests, a small fortune for many at this school, P.S. 188 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

When the rewards were handed out, Jazmin Roman was eager to celebrate her $39.72. She whispered to her friend Abigail Ortega, “How much did you get?” Abigail mouthed a barely audible answer: $36.87. Edgar Berlanga pumped his fist in the air to celebrate his $34.50.

The idea is a little offensive – the money feels like a bribe – but I’m all in favor of the educational experiment. My justification is rooted in the details of the developing brain. The maturation of the human mind recapitulates its evolution, so that the first parts of the brain to evolve – the motor cortex and brain stem – are also the first to mature in children. They are fully functional by the time we hit puberty. But brain areas that are relatively recent biological inventions – areas like the frontal lobes – don’t finish growing and myelinating until the teenage years are over. The prefrontal cortex is the last brain area to fully mature.

This developmental process holds the key to understanding the behavior of adolescents. Consider the high-school drop-out rate. Earning a high-school degree is an incredibly lucrative endeavor: if you get a diploma your average lifetime earnings increase dramatically. And yet, in many urban school districts, the dropout rate approaches fifty percent. By any measure, this is clearly irrational behavior. Teenagers are willing to forgo significant long-term gains (increased pay in the future) for short-term benefits (not having to go to school).

Richard Thaler gives an example of this psychology at work:

A recent West Virginia law revoked driving permits for students under the age of 18 who drop out of school. The first year results indicate that this law has reduced the drop-out rate by one-third. It seems implausible that one-third of the high school dropouts were so close to the margin that the loss of driving privileges for a year or two (or more precisely, the expected costs of driving illegally for this period) could tip a rational human capital investment decision toward completing high school. Rather, the behavior seems to reveal extremely myopic preferences. A similar myopia is evident in the lament of a dermatologist that her warnings about the risk of skin cancer have little effect, but “my patients are much more compliant about avoiding the sun when I tell them that it can cause large pores and blackheads.”

This irrational behavior can be explained, at least in part, by the immature prefrontal cortex. Studies by Jonathan Cohen and colleagues have shown that when people choose delayed monetary rewards they rely on the lateral regions of the prefrontal cortex. In contrast, when we submit to our impatient impulses – these are the impulses telling us to drop out of school – we rely on the midbrain dopamine system. While the emotional brains of teens are operating at full throttle (those raging hormones don’t help), the mental muscles that check these emotions are still being built. That’s why teens act so recklessly.

What does this have to do with paying students for test scores? I think these cash rewards can help correct for the hyperbolic discount rates used by adolescents. They don’t really grasp the long-term consequences of their decisions, but perhaps we can get them to do the right thing with some targeted short-term rewards.


  1. #1 Sam the Centipede
    March 7, 2008

    My dental hygeinist says that several people she treats (?or whatever the correct verb is for what hygeinists do!) have given up smoking after she pointed out how gums recede and teeth go manky as a result of the blood circulation and other problems caused by smoking. She reckons that’s a more effective deterrent than doctors’ grave warnings.

    People resent, really resent, hectoring lectures. They (we!) feel bullied by it, and also by people trying to do “encouraging” when you know they’re really just putting a sugar coating on hectoring/bullying.

    Does anybody enjoy having it explained to them in detail why they’re wrong? Not many!

  2. #2 Mark
    March 7, 2008

    While I don’t disagree with what you’ve written, I don’t think it’s complete (nothing’s ever complete – especially descriptions of behavior!).

    Other factors impinging on performance include the quality of the education received, and whether, by the 4th grade, curiosity and the joy of learning have been seriously degraded in students (some studies indicate this is a real possibility). Parental involvement also has an impact on performance.

    Yes, it would be nice if everyone was a self-motivated, passionate learner – learning for joy of learning. But if learner motivation has been damaged by poor methods, or if parents are unconcerned, then perhaps paying for performance is another tool that needs to be considered.

    After all, adults are paid for their work (including bonuses for exceptional performance). Children will enter that world soon enough, so why not prepare them for what will amount to the majority of their life experience?

  3. #3 jb
    March 7, 2008

    In support of Jonah’s comments, awhile back someone did a study with young kids to find the best predictors of future adult success. Kid were given candy to place on their desks. Those who could wait the 45 minutes or so til the end of the class period rather than eat it immediately were those who turned out to be successful in later life. Perhaps someone remembers the details of this study.

  4. #4 Jonah
    March 7, 2008

    thanks for the comments. I believe you’re thinking of Walter Mischel’s experiments with marshmallows, jb.

  5. #5 Rachael
    March 7, 2008

    JB, I immediately thought of the study you’re describing… I do remember that the results of this test (I heard it described as the “marshmallow exam”) yielded better predictions of future success than SAT scores or IQ. I have also heard of versions where the child is offered two marshmallows if they wait, but not told how long they have to wait for. This sounds quite a bit like the age old expression, “One bird in the hand versus two in the bush”.

    In my experience this is true. Intelligence does not correlate perfectly with success – the ability to sacrifice immediate happiness for long term reward does.

    Some references here:

  6. #6 Rachael
    March 7, 2008

    P.S. I’d wager a guess that this school is responding in part to Every—err, No Child Left Behind. What sad irony if that is the case… using government money to pay students so the school can get more money!

  7. #7 jb
    March 7, 2008

    Thanks for the references, Jonah and Rachael. Here’s a story from Martin Seligman from his book “Authentic Happiness”:

    “One of my teachers, J. Jaynes, kept an exotic Amazonian lizard as a pet in his lab. In the first few weeks after getting the pet, JJ couldn’t get it to eat. He tried everything, but it was starving before his eyes. He offered it lettuce, and then mango, and then ground pork from the supermarket. He swatted flies and offered them to the lizard. He tried live insects and Chinese takeout. He blended fruit juices. The lizard refused everything and was slipping into torpor.
    One day Julian brought in a ham sandwich and proffered it. The lizard showed no interest. Going about his daily routine, JJ picked up the NYT and began to read. When he finished the first section, he tossed it on top of the ham sandwich. The lizard took one look at this configuration, crept steadily across the floor, leapt onto the newspaper, shredded it, and then gobbled up the ham sandwich. The lizard needed to stalk and shred before it would eat.”
    Professor Seligman goes on to point out that our more complex brain sit on top of an emotional brain that has been shaped for 100,000,000s of years by natural selection. “Our pleasures and the appetites they serve are tied by evolution to a repetoire of actions. These actions are vastly more elaborate and flexible than stalking, pouncing and shredding, but they can be ignored only at considerable cost…..”
    One can speculate about how much of our health, social and economic woes are the result of people using their credit cards instead of waiting until they have saved the money for a purchase, and so on.

  8. #8 Rebecca
    March 7, 2008

    This might beat TEACHERS being paid to improve learner performance. Merit pay for students goes directly to the source of the achievement gains.

  9. #9 Nico
    March 7, 2008

    It’s one thing to take away something pleasureable to deter undesirable behavior (negative punishment, like in the case of the under-18s’ driving permits) and it’s another to provide something pleasureable to encourage desirable behavior (positive reward, like in the case of cash in exchange for high grades), particularly when it borders on excessive. Studies have shown that an overjustification effect exists: if you were to give extrinsic motivation for behavior that is intrinsically motivated, you decrease the intrinsic motivation for this behavior. This means, in the learning context, when there are no longer any immediate rewards for learning, even the most enthusiastic little learner could grow up to be a bored adolescent high school slacker.

    If these kids were unenthusiastic about learning to begin with, maybe this policy is a good idea. But paying kids in AP classes (just one variant of the cash-for-grades craze) to improve their grades further? A lot of these kids are already intrinsically motivated and it wouldn’t do well to leave them prey to the overjustification effect. I guess my point here is that different people learn differently and this probably isn’t going to work, in the long-run across the board, if at all.

    Although, I do agree that this strategy could be promising and merit further study. But what about the kids who will be in the experimental group? Who knows what long-term damage this policy could do to them? I’m not trying to preempt the whole cash-for-grades thing. It might work, and trying it out is the only way to tell. It still bothers me, though.

  10. #10 Marc
    March 7, 2008

    My knee-jerk reaction to the concept of paying fourth graders to get good grades is that there is something “just wrong” about it. The more I think about it, though, the more it makes sense to me. The fact is, there are very few young students who are thrilled by learning, at least in a structured format. It often isn’t until they’re much older that they realize the value of an education, both for their own ability to be a part of society and for their economic well-being. Our current approaches to schooling are expecting students to make rational decisions about their future when, as Jonah mentioned, their ability to make such rational decisions on their own is severely limited by the immaturity of their developing brain. Perhaps, instead of fighting this trend as we have been doing as a society, it would be better to embrace it, and find ways to keep kids interested “now”. Eventually, they will mature and realize the value of their education on their own, but until then, how can we expect them to make decisions that require the perspective of an adult?
    I guess you could make a pretty strong argument, however, that the role of the parent is to guide their child during this period of immaturity, and make sure they don’t go too far astray. But looking at the issue in that sense is more idealistic than realistic, I think.

  11. #11 Tony Jeremiah
    March 8, 2008

    A doctor has implemented a similar monetary reinforcement strategy by paying obese patients a dollar for each pound they lose, and paying a dollar ever time they gain, and has achieved some success with this approach.

    However, there is a possibility of a long-term negative impact as implied by the overjustification effect. Consider the Lepper and Green (1978) experiment, whereby a group of children are rewarded with certificates and praise for drawing, which had the immediate effect of increased drawing relative to children not rewarded. However, after some time had passed and rewards were subsequently taken away, the rewarded children displayed drawing behavior lower than the baseline behavior of the unrewarded children.

    That particular study would seem to suggest that in the long-term, paying students for good grades early on will have a negative impact. In particular, the possibility of decreased studying behavior and potentially not completing college, given that the post-secondary environment essentially represents a situation in which monetary rewards for studying are removed because students are not paid to study.

    Probably the best approach would be to pay students for good grades, but, rather than having them use the money immediately, it should be specified that they cannot use this cash until they graduate from high school.

    This would essentially be the equivalent of earning a scholarship (gradually) for studying.

  12. #12 Jimmy
    March 8, 2008


    I’ve seen the scholarship argument before, but I don’t think it would work. First, the amount of money which is being proposed here really isn’t comparable to a good college scholarship: it might allow the student to buy a DVD or two every semester, but won’t make much of a dent in tuition.

    Second: the motivation is still too long-term. Students are already told all the time that doing well will help them get scholarships, and it doesn’t seem to help much. The new thing here is to give students a real short-term motivation for doing well.

    If your boss told you that improved performance would result in your getting a bonus, but of undetermined size and and only if you waited eight years for it, how much would that motivate you to work harder?

  13. #13 Milt Lee
    March 9, 2008

    Your statement that the prefrontal lobes “don’t finish growing and myelinating” till after the teen age years is absolutely right, and it does mean that teenagers don’t have the skills (or perhaps brain power) to sus out the advantage of studying harder for it’s own sake.

    But here’s something else to consider. Dr. Rita Smilkstein’s book – Born to Learn – talks about the Natural Human Learning Process, and how we are all natural born learners, and how – given the right pedagogy – students will be totally engrossed in learning. My wife, Jamie Lee, teaches developmental English at Oglala Lakota College and has seen a dramatic rise in both attendance and scores in her students since the introduction of this teaching method.

    You can see some of what they are doing at Many Kites.

    It’s my feeling that the reason that most people do poorly in school is not whether or not they are getting rewards. The reality is that humans love to learn. Those magic words, “See if you can figure this out” are like catnip for the brain. But if students are never given the chance to figure things out, when schools rush through mountains of material without adequate time to learn it, and teachers treat students as if they were big buckets that you can just pour the knowledge into, then we will continue to have many students left behind.
    Milt Lee

  14. #14 Tony Jeremiah
    March 9, 2008


    Good points.

    I think to put the pay-to-learn program into perspective, several other factors known to be related to adolescent drop out rates must be taken into consideration.

    First, it is important to note that teenagers with behavioral problems (likely connected with Jonah’s frontal lobe maturation perspective) represent only a fraction of students who drop out before completing high school. Another group involves those with few behavioral problems who just simply disengage from school without anyone noticing. Regardless of behavior, dropping out is known to be associated with risk factors that actually start in grade 1 (e.g., childhood conduct disorder), a long history of marginal to failing school grades that leads to low academic self-esteem, and rejection by mainstream peers at school that subsequently leads to school disengagement (e.g., failure to join school clubs, participate in athletics, attending classes) and often association with norm-violating peers (e.g., gangs).

    Factors not directly connected to the teenager but can still impact their tendency to drop out include parents who are not engaged with their child’s education, parents who respond to their child’s poor grades with punishment and anger, and schooling environments that may be characterized by uninspired teaching.

    Another factor influencing the drop out rate, and, one that would seem to be more directly impacted by the pay to learn method, is the finding that approximately 50% of high school students work part-time during the school year. For middle SES students, this money is spent on material goods rather than set aside for future education. Low SES students often use their income as supplemental income for their family. High school students working more than 15 hours have a higher attrition, often resulting in poorer school attendance, lower grades, and less time for extracurricular school activities.

    So again, I think the pay-to-learn approach might work. But, I think the Achilles’ heel of this approach would be to simply let teenagers do whatever they wish with the money upon achieving a specified academic achievement (e.g., spending on material goods). This may be especially true for high school students who may already be engaged in part-time work for the purpose of acquiring material possessions.

    Therefore, I suggest something along the lines of setting up some kind of post-high school savings plan based on student grades. That is, students can expect to essentially earn monetary credits for obtaining specific grades (e.g., A through C) that could be setup in the form of a bank account whereby the base amount could earn interest over time. Then perhaps by grade 12 (and probably starting when a child begins to understand the concept of money), the student will have something like $4000+ by the time they finish high school, with the sum depending entirely on the types of grades they get. Once they finish high school, they can use that money for whatever they wish.

    I’m sure if someone said that a high school student could be guaranteed $4000+ if they finished high school with decent grades, and, can do whatever they wish with it at that point, that might put a dent in the dropout rate.

  15. #15 ted
    March 9, 2008

    To continue on TJ’s point about the context of dropping out behavior, I really don’t think a bribe is going to do it. Certain social groups have always prized the “school of hard knocks” above academic institutions. My white, middle-class, NYC, Jewish culture valued education. My peers valued grades. It was one of the things I could build my character on. It was a token of value I could use to fit in to my peer group. I think many drops outs (the ones I know) come from communities in which school has no “cred.” They feel that what they can aspire to is – long hours of work for low wages, the army, prison (prison actually does have cache) – so what gratification are they delaying? This may not be the only picture their future actually has, but it is the message that’s played over and over again. One reason an Obama presidency might have some value(this is honestly not an election pitch, it’s a discussion of a symbol)is as a daily four-year example of how different behavior can really achieve different results. It might help change the cultural narrative. To get back on point, I think bribes create a culture of entitlement – ‘there, I did what you wanted – what are you going to give me?’ Students need to learn on the positive side how to want the grades and on the negative side that their lives will consist of doing some things they don’t like. That’s true for all of us. Ultimately they and their parents needs to believe that there is really something in it for them long-term. Paying them is like saying – you’re right, there’s nothing in it for you. Just do it because I said so and I’ll give you something that’s really worthwhile – money. As their frontal lobes wire, building and reinforcing messages and methods that are going to be of value all their lives is more valuable than $50. Or am I just an idealist?

  16. #16 fatih
    September 29, 2008

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