Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Genius prize" economist on incentives and understanding

Roland Fryer is " an economist illuminating the causes and consequences of economic disparity due to race and inequality in American society," and a newly announced 2011 MacArthur Fellow. EdWeek blogger Sarah Sparks has a new post up on Fryer's work and thought.

In Sparks' reporting, what caught my eye was Fryer's analysis of financial incentives for students and teachers, and his explanation for why those incentives seem to have little or no net effect on achievement:
Most recently, in a series of randomized trials at more than 250 schools in 2010, Fryer found no benefit to using financial incentives for students to improve academic achievement. The studies built on his previous research that found no benefit to using financial incentives for teachers to improve student achievement.  
Fryer told me these experiments have fundamentally changed the way he thinks about the incentive structure in education.  
 "Economists always assume people know how to produce something. Incentives work if you are lazy, not if you don't know how to do something," he said. In the studies, he found teachers got excited about merit pay but still asked for professional development; students got excited about grade incentives but still called for tutors. "So that's spawned some new theoretical ideas for me. What if people don't know how to be produce something? What do optimal incentives look like in that environment?"
To me, that issue of knowing how to produce is where professional learning community work comes in.  Teachers working in teams can develop the knowledge and skill to do the "somethings" that work to raise achievement and shrink achievement gaps.  Professional development from outside experts can provide the big concept of a helpful change, but teachers will not become skilled at implementing that change until they have time to wrestle, plan, experiment, reflect, and refine that idea together.  With that engagement and mutual support, teachers can and do create important steps forward in student performance.  Incentives are never a substitute for the conditions that nurture true growth.

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