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.