Fryer and Incentives, Tough and Grit

Hi folks. Been busy! I just came across an essay as old as me. Vintage 1969. An enjoyable read. For 3 reasons.


There have been many attempts at reform.

Curriculum studies, often aided by professional societies, have sought to revise the content of primary and secondary school courses to make them more relevant and more intriguing.

School designs have been altered in order to make the physical plant more conducive to the educational process.

Technological aids such as closed circuit television have been introduced to facilitate learning.

Teacher salaries have been increased

Teachers are being encouraged to add to their qualifications by participating in summer study programs and taking advanced degrees.

Federally funded projects offer children opportunities to supplement their regular school programs with afterschool, summer-school and preschool programs.

I will not be the first to observe this. But the k-12 world tries the same things over and over. Even without success. Because they are so intuitively appealing.

The authors -- Andrew Effrat, Roy Feldman, and Harvey Sapolsky -- then turn to this issue:

First, a number of studies suggest that the temporal horizons of the poor are shorter than those of the nonpoor. They tend to be more present-oriented, to have less ability to defer gratification, that is, to prefer more immediate rewards as opposed to longer run ones.

Ah ha! They're talking about grit. That's the second reason I enjoyed their essay. Because the New York Times Magazine had long riff about overcoming failure last weekend. By Paul Tough. And lots of you have been emailing me for thoughts.

Well, let's wind back the clock 42 years, and see what this 3 guys had to say.

Proposals for longer school hours, preschool training, and boarding school arrangements are designed to "capture" the child before he is "captured" by the subculture into which he is born. This type of effort is essentially what the schools have been employing with less than desired success. It is not clear, however, that this effort at subcultural change is either legitimate or feasible.

Hmm. The authors' view is that

a) Most people of their era think that kids will learn the right values either by more school, or by departure from bad environments, and

b) They disagree.

At KIPP schools, it's true: part of the idea of longer hours at the school is that it equals fewer hours in less enlightening environments.

The main idea of a no excuses school, however, is that hour-by-hour student experience needs to be quite different than that of a traditional school. There has to be a great sense of urgency, one that leads to kids doing much more work, minute by minute.

So it's not just "more" regular school. Nor is it just what the authors call "capture" (less time "on the street"). It's a qualitatively better school experience.

Now the main driver across no excuses charter schools is essentially an unusual focus on accountability systems. Teachers use relationships, plus proactive and reactive moves, plus unity among teachers (i.e., everyone takes roughly the same approach, and rows in the same direction) -- which all combine that generate more student effort every period of every day and then homework at night, particularly from reluctant kids.

I.e., if you can get kids to work hard today, and tomorrow, and the next day, over time the act of working hard will become second nature. It will be easier in the future to work hard. Or so goes the theory.

Now some charters -- and this is what the NYT article covers -- have a second component of spreading values. Grit is taught explicitly. "Character education." In the article, for example, KIPP NYC has a character report card.

Here in Boston, Excel Charter School teacher Brett Pangburn explained how he and his colleagues take on teaching values (i.e., separate from modeling values)

Starting at New Student Orientation, kids are introduced to the idea of individual vs. group responsibility, explicitly taught values like perseverance and intellectual hunger, and explicitly taught Stanley Kohlberg's 6 levels of decision making.

These values are then reinforced throughout the year (in the lower grades through a "Life Skills" class, and through weekly Community Circle meetings in all grades) where kids reflect in various ways upon how these values play into real life situations (i.e. gossiping; cheating; physical (and cyber) bullying; etc).

Teachers also weave in character education to homeroom discussions, advisory meetings, and classes. Each week kids receive a report summarizing their grades, attendance, and behaviors, and then reflect in writing upon some of their choices that week and what consequences followed.

Finally, behavioral infractions are presented to kids in terms of character, and kids receiving a serious behavioral consequence (i.e. a detention or in/out of school suspension) must reflect in writing upon the consequences of their choices and how to make better choices the next time.

I think that these are generally effective in beginning to shape a student's character and influence his/her behavior, and can be very empowering for kids given that we are framing behavior as a series of choices. The challenge is that kids' ability to independently reflect meaningfully upon behavior can depend upon maturity, and therefore this often requires heavy duty scaffolding and conversations with an adult to be most effective.

Sounds good, right?

But believe me: this sort of effort is very labor intensive. It takes time from teachers.

So there has to be legit buy-in to pull this stuff off. Otherwise, you end up with "hollow" character education. Which is worse than none -- accomplishes nothing, but costs time (of kids and teachers).

Back to the 42 year old article. The authors are skeptical. They think efforts to instill grit will fail. They propose another path.

Let us briefly sketch an incentives system experiment consistent with these principles. Instead of being given a gold star, a pat on the head, or simply a letter or numeral grade for good academic performance, a student would receive a subculturally more desired reward: a cash payment.

A payment schedule can be devised that will provide the student with incentives for improving his performance in the classroom so that he will be rewarded for working at his own capacity rather than in competition with other students.

Thus the student is rewarded for improving his own performance or for maintaining an acceptable level of work in the classroom. Incentives would be distributed regularly for incremental approximations of correct classroom behavior.

Back then, this was a pie in the sky idea. Even recently, paying kids to learn was a no-fly zone. I remember years ago chatting with friends about experiments with paying kids. Even Hans -- a venture capital guy -- didn't like the idea.

Enter Roland Fryer. He doesn't like conventions. He managed to run some of the most interesting trials on paying kids to learn. For that research and other stuff, he just got a MacArthur "genius" fellowship. Congrats to him.

I've always coveted that award. Not for the $500k. I just want the obvious -- you know, to refer to myself in third person and say things like "The GENIUS can't take out the trash, sorry Pru, he's thinking." Roland just got married so now he gets to use those lines.

Anyway. This is where it comes full circle. Roland's view now is that while some incentives work has potential, his main effort with struggling schools in Houston and now Denver focuses instead on "a no excuses school culture of high expectations."