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.