Why not give cell phones to students for doing well in school?

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Nov. 6 2007 5:38 PM

In Defense of Bloomberg's Bribe

Why not give cell phones to students for doing well in school?

Michael Bloomberg. Click image to expand.
Michael Bloomberg

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg brought only condemnation upon himself when he announced last Thursday that he is thinking about giving free cell phones and minutes to some public-school students who perform well on tests. The proposal is part of a larger effort (financed with private money and means-tested) to pay students in low-income schools for testing well.

The political spectrum united to oppose the whole idea. The Manhattan Institute's Sol Stern said paying for test performance undermined learning for its own sake. New York University historian Diane Ravitch called it "anti-democratic, anti-civic, anti-intellectual, and anti-social." Leo Casey of the United Federation of Teachers objected that "money can't buy you learning." On his show, Stephen Colbert teased city schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, "As long as you're going to be paying kids and making it seem like a job, why not just bring back child labor?"

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In fact, Bloomberg is on to something. The cell-phone bribe and the pay-for-test-scores scheme, which provides up to $500 a year for seventh-graders who do well on 10 exams, are the brainchildren of black economist Roland G. Fryer. An assistant professor at Harvard who also serves as the New York City Education Department's chief equality officer, Fryer himself grew up in difficult circumstances (his mother left when he was very young, and his father spent time in prison for sexual assault). But Fryer succeeded, and he became interested in finding out what incentives would motivate more students growing up in like circumstances to do well. His ideas are an intriguing combination of tough and liberal approaches: tough because they take a hard-nosed rather than romantic view of education, and liberal in that the goal is to raise the achievement of low-income kids and foster social mobility.

Fryer's ideas are closely connected to those of another tough liberal, the late Albert Shanker, who headed the teachers' unions from 1964 until his death in 1997. Shanker argued that the incentive structure in American public education was terribly biased in favor of well-off kids and against poorer ones. Students who were shooting to attend selective four-year colleges—most of whom were upper-middle class and white—had plenty of incentive to do well academically.

But for the vast majority of students who were not aiming at elite colleges, there was little reason to do more than slide by. "Teachers and parents tell kids to work hard in school because their futures depend on it," Shanker said. "But the kids aren't fooled." The reason is that doing well in school doesn't matter much if you're planning to go to a college that accepts virtually everyone who applies, as most of them do. American employers rarely look at high-school grades, unlike their counterparts in Europe, Japan, Canada, and Australia. So pragmatically speaking, what's the difference between a B and a C and a D?

While Shanker wished that students would be motivated by a love of learning alone, he knew that was unrealistic. "I once hoped for such a world," he said. But his experience teaching in the New York City schools taught him otherwise. He recalled, "Whenever I gave an examination or a quiz or told kids to bring in an essay, the whole class shouted, 'Does it count? Does it count?' We have an educational system in this country in which nothing counts."

Today, that's not quite as true. Schools give poor kids and middle-class kids alike a reason not to actually fail, because failing often gets you kicked off a sports team or held back or denied a diploma. The sticks, in other words, apply to kids across the economic spectrum.

But the carrots—the positive incentive to do better than pass—still apply mostly to economically advantaged students. They see attendance at a four-year college as a real possibility. And they see evidence all around them of the importance of doing well academically. Cell phones and $500 might seem like a poor substitute for that sort of motivation. But they're a whole lot better than almost entirely abstract notions of success, which is what's currently on offer. Why not give it a try?

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