4 min read

How paying kids to succeed doesn’t work, why good teachers make all the difference, and why parents need to have choices (through vouchers for some and charters for everyone).

How paying kids to succeed doesn't work, why good teachers make all the difference, and why parents need to have choices (through vouchers for some and charters for everyone).


There have always been two schools of thought in how to ensure that troubled children do well in school. The conservatives argued that bad kids were that way because they wanted to be bad, and therefore the solution was swift, constant, and relentless “zero-tolerance” discipline. The liberals countered that more often than not the bad kids came from bad neighborhoods where they lacked loving parents. Therefore, they needed to have schools turn into “huggy-bear places” where kids were constantly told how special they were and regularly given treats, prizes, and cash as rewards for their specialness.

Paul Tough, in this very interesting piece published in the June 2016 of The Atlantic (excerpted from his book Helping Children Succeed) shows how the debate has shifted, and that both sides had flaws in their arguments.

It should be noted that although he considers his piece to be about “character education,” there is nothing in this piece about teaching children to be good citizens or even teaching them right and wrong. Rather, it’s about what we would call “good work habits” and what our grandparents would call “deportment.” How do we teach children to show up in school on time and not talk back to or fight your teachers?

The problems that disciplinarians have had are twofold. First, the punishments are given for ludicrous, legalistic reasons. (Think of any child under age 10 being suspended for pointing a finger at someone or turning any object into the shape of a gun.) Second, suspending children means they’re not in school, and are spending extra time learning “the code of the street.”

Tough has more sympathy with those educators who say that kids can’t be blamed for doing bad things. But the single most interesting piece of research in his article is his summary of Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer, Jr.’s finding that paying kids to succeed in school doesn’t work.

Fryer, says Tough, has spent millions in studies about student achievement. Between 2007-09, he distributed $9.4 million in cash in Dallas, New York, and Chicago. He found that “the impact of financial incentives on student achievement…is statistically 0 in each city.” A follow-up study, conducted with fifth-grade students in Houston in the 2010-11 school year, found that paying parents, teachers, and students to spend more time on math resulted in no improvements in math scores—and lower reading scores.

Also of interest is Tough’s summary of research by Northwestern University economist C. Kirabo Jackson. Jackson took a database that analyzed the performance of several hundred thousand ninth-grade students in North Carolina between 2005-11. He then looked at four data points: “attendance, suspensions, on-time grade progression, and overall GPA.”

He found that there were some teachers in each school who were able to keep kids coming to school every day and prevent them from getting suspended. Those children, Jackson found, ended up having higher grade point averages and doing better in school than students who didn’t have these inspiring teachers to guide them.

The experts Tough talked to believe that children who act up or misbehave in school often do so because their brains aren’t fully mature. The theory is that children from low-income families come from stressful neighborhoods, and parents who lash out at their children, particularly if the children are under age 5, compound the stress.

The result, according to neuroscientists, is that the brains of low-income children are severely impaired. They end up having “a highly-sensitive stress response system constantly on the lookout for threats,” resulting in kids that fight, talk back to their teachers, and are constantly looking for signs of “disrespect.” They’re also severely lacking in “executive function,” the “higher-order mental abilities” that help people deal with unfamiliar situations or learn new things. The path they take in life heads slowly downwards.

Some of what Tough found is undoubtedly true. But, as various critics of the field have suggested, too many neuroscientists confuse causation with correlation – they see smoke through their MRIs and proclaims it to be fire. Moreover, Tough’s solutions aren’t new.

He praises a charter school chain called EL Education, which runs more than 150 charter schools. Students in EL schools begin their days in “crews” which stay together up to three years. They then spend their time working on long-term projects.

"The central premise of EL schools is that character is built not through lectures or direct instruction from teachers but through the experience of persevering as students confront challenging academic work."

EL schools remind me of the work of Theodore “Ted” Sizer. Sizer, who flourished in the 1960s through the 1980s, was a conservative progressive (or a progressive conservative). In books such as Horace’s School, he argued that students should spend more time on projects they would submit for their coursework, and in doing so they would learn traditional skills, such as reading, writing, and counting. (His math project was a simple one: show you know enough math to fill out a tax return.) The EL Education appears to follow many Sizerian principles and practices.[1]

The terms and jargon may have changed, but as Paul Tough’s article demonstrates, the solution to fixing schools is the same. Parents and students need lots of choices, through vouchers for some and charters for everyone. The vouchers should include those donations from philanthropists that aid the best low-income students to attend Catholic or other religious schools.

In short, the more choices parents have, the better able they will be to find a school that is right for their child, and the more likely that child will succeed in school and life. That’s advice that shouldn’t change even when neuroscientists enter the education debates.


[1] Another point of continuity—EL Education students still have to read To Kill a Mockingbird in eighth grade!

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