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The New York Sun


Risk Worth Taking

July 10, 2007

By Edward Glaeser

My colleague, Roland Fryer, recently announced that he was taking a leave of absence from our economics department to serve as the "chief equality officer" for the New York City Public School System. Mr. Fryer will help implement a pay-for-performance program that will reward poorer children for excelling on standardized tests.

The program involves a medley of rewards ranging from 25 bucks for a good elementary school attendance record to $600 for passing a regents exam. The rewards are being funded, not by the city, but by donors including Mayor Bloomberg himself who are eager to try anything that might help New York's poorest.

Predictably, this incentives program has brought forth howls of protest from both the Left and the Right. The enemies of this program are so committed to protecting their shibboleths that they don't even want to know if incentives will work in New York's schools.

I don't know whether this experiment will improve test scores, but Chancellor Klein and Mayor Bloomberg are showing us what real leadership looks like by supporting a bold experiment that will teach us something about how to help educate poor children.

Some critics argue that this is just another social program that combines payments to the poor with social engineering. The program does involve some payments for poor kids, but I don't see the problem with a voluntary transfer of money from really rich people to really poor people.

It is also true that this program tries to use the tools of government to improve people's lives. While I am naturally skeptical of all such intrusions, this doesn't look like a 1960s era social program because it is rewarding poorer children for success, not failure. This is a program that provides incentives for children to work hard.

Moreover, this program is not increasing the scope of government, but rather using better management to make an established government activity � public schooling � more effective. If the anti-government crowd wants to go to the barricades for vouchers, I'll be there with them, but if we're not doing that, then lets at least try to make our public schools as effective as possible.

Other critics have argued that the program won't work either because people don't respond to incentives or because the incentives aren't big enough. The view that people never respond to incentives is utter nonsense. There is a robust history of effectively using incentives in education and not just financial ones.

The harshest criticism facing the program is that these incentives will actually harm the poor by destroying the intrinsic motivation to learn. There are cases, like blood drives, where financial incentives can have counterproductive results. But there are two features to such cases that are absent in the educational one. The case where financial incentives can hurt starts with a well-functioning system that is fueled by individual altruism. Our inner city schools are not well functioning and going to school isn't a particularly altruistic act.

As any college-bound student can tell you, there are huge financial returns already associated with academic success. My students excel partially for those reasons and partially out of a love for learning that has not been harmed by the large pecuniary returns to educational excellence. The love of knowledge doesn't seem at odds with the desire for book royalties. And there is nothing demeaning in using financial incentives to make the returns to schooling more tangible for the less fortunate.

Who knows if this program will work, but I do know that we need to take risks and acquire knowledge. Messrs. Klein and Fryer are trying something that might improve schools and will teach us something at the very least. Their enemies are really fighting not against incentives, but against knowledge itself because that type of knowledge can only be gained through experiments of this kind.

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