Should We Pay Kids to Read?

As the philosopher Michael Sandel notes, this isn't just a practical question, but an ethical one.

Sandel lectures students at Harvard. (Harvard University)

An intellectual food-fest called Chicago Ideas Week just ended its second annual run after dozens of eclectic sessions with A-list speakers, billionaire entrepreneurs, famous generals, and artists, among others. About the only significant no-show was Lance Armstrong, who's presumably got legal troubles that took priority.

Among the more engaging presenters was Michael Sandel, a Harvard political philosopher, who had several hundred attendees wondering: Should we pay our kids to read? Should there be financial incentives for learning?

It was a vague surprise that so many in the audience raised their hands to support the notion. Sandel then randomly chose folks, ranging from high school students to early education experts, to explain themselves.

One businessman spoke of going on vacation with his family and paying his children $20 for each book they read. He said they read 15 books apiece. He clearly thought it was an effective gambit.

"Expensive vacation," said Sandel.

Some Chicago charter schools boast of economic incentives for performance and behavior, including financial penalties for poor behavior. The Nobel Network of Charter Schools has collected about $400,000 in disciplinary fees from students since 2008 for infractions, such as not tucking in shirts, being late to class, and not tying shoelaces the correct way.

And, in fact, there is no shortage of experiments in motivating kids -- as well as teachers and even parents -- through reward systems. It might be promising a pizza party for those who finish the most assignments, or even offering good, old-fashioned cash. Teacher bonuses have been tied to student performance, with rewards also used as a lure for greater parent participation. John List, chairman of the economics department at the University of Chicago, has overseen several such experiments.

The whole topic is touched upon by Emily Richmond, public editor of the Washington-based Education Writers Association, in a post that appeared on our site earlier this year.

To the extent that there's a conventional wisdom on how such incentives have fared, they appear to yield some short-term gains. But Richmond notes that there's precious little uniformity in actual results. What works for one group may not work for another. This makes it extremely difficult to consider taking such programs to scale.

Can such incentives potentially change a student's long-term academic performance? Would a student, whether on vacation with his parents or in the classroom, keep reading after the reward vanishes? Conversely, might a reward somehow undermine a student's intellectual growth or appreciation for learning?

Richmond references a Center on Education Policy study that reviewed the existing literature. It might leave you scratching your head about the value of incentives.

Zoe Friedland, a 17-year-old Chicago high school student, likely did not know about any such research when she raised her hand. But she was clearly on the fence when called upon by Sandel.

"We can't expect rewards for everything we do," she said. An early education specialist who thrust her hand into the air was less ambiguous, saying it creates the wrong values when we pay kids.

Sandel played the Socratic academic for 10 or 15 minutes, soliciting the views of some of the several hundred attendees, before making clear his own views on the narrow topic of paying kids to read -- and getting to the larger point of his presentation.

Money can erode values, he believes. He thus finds a flaw in standard economic reasoning, since most economists don't buy into the notion that money corrupts the actual goods that are part of a transaction. But material goods are different than social practices, he said.

Ultimately, Sandel told the audience he finds that commonality, a sense of shared community, is eroded by the "marketization of everything." For sure, when he broached the subject of paying kids to read, he was wondering about the impact of incentives on kids of all social and economic classes. But he also places such experimentation in an overarching context, namely, what he calls the "skyboxization of American life."

By that phrase, he means the accelerating gulf between those of affluence and those more modest means. Increasingly, they live separate lives; thus the skybox analogy, with plush enclaves for an elite increasingly removed from those in what we once called the cheap seats.

Sandel nostalgically recalled going to Minnesota Twins baseball games as a kid, when the differential between the price of box seats and bleachers seats was quite modest: something on the order of $3.50 versus $1 or less.

Democracy entails the sharing of common experiences, he said. It's how we come to care for a common good. "How do we want to live together?" he wondered, strongly implying that the gaps among us are getting bigger and bigger, and that money has something to do with it.

As he spoke, I couldn't help but think of a very different social scientist, the conservative Charles Murray, and his latest book, Coming Apart. It's received attention mostly for its focus on white working class struggles with illegitimacy and crime. But Murray also zeroes in on a monied elite that is increasingly removed from traditional notions of civic engagement as it separates itself physically and emotionally from the rest of society. Indeed, some of his harshest analyses are targeted at those residing in Chicago's fanciest zip codes, like the suburb of Kenilworth.

The distance between those sitting in the skyboxes, awaiting the arrival of the dessert cart, and those way out in right field with their hot dogs and stale beer, seems to be pretty vast. And especially when it comes to education, that just might not be a good thing.