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On My Mind: Paying Kids to Learn

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Last week TIME magazine ran a cover story about paying kids cash money to get better grades.

The objections to cash ‘rewards’ for schooling have been around for a long time and can lead to tremendous political uproar. There are moral objections—children should do what’s expected of them without reward. There are philosophical, theoretical, religious, and of course financial objections.

Well, this fellow at Harvard, economist Roland Fryer Jr., decided the first thing to do was to find out if paying kids to do better in school actually worked or not. Forget all the existing studies and opinions. Forget those specific schools where reinforcers, large and small, are built into the system. According to TIME, Dr. Fryer “did something education researchers almost never do: he ran a randomized experiment.” (Just think about THAT for a minute. They opine stuff and put it into the schools and they don’t TEST it?)

Anyway, Fryer persuaded four cities—New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Dallas—to set up ways to pay some groups of kids to learn (while others just did the usual learning). The experiment involved 18,000 kids and a total of $6.3 million in payouts.

Fryer left the design of the programs up to the cities; he let them pick whatever they thought would work. The results, which he shared exclusively with TIME, “represent the largest study of financial incentives in the classroom and one of the more rigorous studies ever on anything in education policy.”

City planning

New York set up a program to pay fourth-through seventh-grade children for their test grades during the school year. For great results you could get as much as $50. The money went right into a savings account.

Chicago also paid for test scores during the year. Good scores could earn up to $2,000 per year, half of which went into a savings account payable on graduation.

Washington, D.C. had a complicated system in which high school students were paid $100 every two weeks by getting perfect marks in five different areas, including attendance and good behavior.

Dallas kept it simple. Second-graders got $2 every time they read a book and passed a little computer test on it.

Then the kids all took the national MCAS tests at the end of the year, to see if their scores had improved over those of control groups who got no money.

What happened

In New York and Chicago attendance improved, morale improved, grades improved, and the kids liked the program—but the MCAS test score improvement was zero. Nil. None. Nada.

Washington, D.C. showed distinct improvement in general behavior and, presumably as a result, some improvement in reading scores, enough so the chancellor was thrilled and extended the program after the experiment was over.

And 85% of the Dallas second graders improved their reading the equivalent of five full months of extra schooling, and continued to improve the year after that.

Why the differences? Clicker trainers could tell them…

In Chicago and New York, the event being reinforced—grades on tests—was an end result, not a behavior in itself. The money, too, accumulating in savings or paid out at graduation, was seriously delayed, functioning as a positive experience but not necessarily a reinforcer. Sort of a lure; gets you hopeful and moving, and in a good mood, but doesn’t actually teach you much. Kids loved the program, and wanted to earn more; they just didn’t know how.

In D.C., most of the five behaviors (coming to school, not fighting) were things that the kids could control, and could offer deliberately. $100 every two weeks was frequent enough to actually reinforce better behavior, and a global change in behavior enabled everybody to learn more. Standardized test scores in reading went up about three months’ worth, even though nothing else in the teaching or school changed.

And in Dallas? The behavior was a clear-cut operant behavior the children could already do: read a book and answer a quiz on screen. The payoff was connected to the task and was therefore a reinforcer. MCAS reading scores improved by five months. It was as if the kids had had another half year of schooling. And it cost Dallas about $14 a kid.

What of the 15% of Dallas children who did not earn pay and did not get better? Perhaps they were the ones that couldn’t really read yet, or at least not in English. They couldn’t earn reinforcement because they just didn’t have the behavior. TIME thought so too.

My take on it

Fryer is reported as saying he doesn’t really know why it worked best in Dallas, or why 15% of the Dallas kids didn’t learn. He does know, however, that they definitely have an answer to the question, does money work; done right, cash can make a huge difference.

How exhausting—four cities, 6 million dollars, 18,000 kids—and only one school system came up with an operant behavior and a timely reinforcer. And no one noticed those fundamental facts. Makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time, doesn’t it!

Well, good for Dr. Fryer and TIME magazine. Maybe SOMEONE besides us clicker trainers will read the story and go “Oh. I see why that worked. Let’s get it going in our school.”

Our town. Our city. Our state. Our planet.

About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

Cash pay-off for war dog training efforts


Payout for exceptional learning, interestingly enough, can be traced to the absolute foundation of domestic dog training. As I have come to learn, pet dog trainers emerged in society following the resolution of major wars, as their specialized service of training dogs for military use was no longer needed. The first nation to employ "war dogs" was Germany, circa 1885. Surprisingly the first war dog training manuals published by the german army did not condone punishment to a large extent, though that soon changed as the methods were "refined and improved upon." But back to the point about reward pay-off, the military trainers who created the most impressive dogs in a given battalion were awarded a cash prize of up to four dollars, a decent sum of money in the late 1800s. In applying learned skills, by means of teaching one's self or another being, money seems to be a good supplement to the intrinsic or extrinsic rewards that motivates one to succeed. What I mean by this is that a skill such as good reading retention is attained by internal motivation- to avoid frustration, to get better marks in school- you don't need to offer a kid cash to teach her how to read, but it seems to helps. So is true for those leash-bearing German military officials of the 1800s- a good sentry dog can save a man's life, a pretty good reinforcer in my opinion. Money raised the stakes in that situation too. 

My source is a book titled Dogs for Defense published in 1945. 

-Lily S. 


Chapter in press

I am just one author among many.  Here is the information about my chapter.  The last news I had from Wayne Fisher was that the book might be out by fall.


Catania, A. C. (in press). Basic operant contingencies: Main effects and side effects. In Fisher, Piazza, & Roane (Eds.). Handbook of Applied Behavior Analysis. New York: Guilford.

Time article: have they confused bribery and reinforcement?

Karen:  Thanks for calling this to our attention.  Too bad that Time paired bribery with reinforcement.  The distinction is crucial.  Here's an account of the reasons why, from a forthcoming handbook chapter of mine.

Charlie Catania

    In the literature of the "hidden costs of reward," reinforcers have sometimes been equated with bribes (Kohn, 1993), but it is unlikely that the arrangements described as bribes by such critics of the practice of reinforcement involve the direct effects of reinforcers. The language of bribery has an extensive history in law and ethics as an offer of goods or favors in exchange for favorable treatment in business or politics or other human endeavors. Critics of the practice of reinforcement have extended this language to the common parental practice of specifying a consequence when asking a child to do something (e.g., "If you put away your toys, you can watch television"). There are good reasons to advise parents against the practice of bribery in this sense, but the reasons are different from those offered by the critics. They have correctly recognized the potentially different effects of natural and artificial consequences, but they have also seriously conflated cases of verbal stimulus control with those involving other varieties of contingencies.

    Parents sometimes complain that their child only cooperates with requests when there is an immediate and explicit payoff. This problem is one of stimulus control. The parent may sometimes say "It is time to put your toys away" and at other times may say "If you put away your toys, you can watch television." But unless the child who has complied with the request gets an opportunity to watch television whether or not the contingency has been explicitly stated, the child will learn to comply only when the parent states it.

    Given that a bribe specifies behavior and its consequences, offers of bribes instead function as stimuli that set the occasion for particular contingencies. The child who is frequently bribed in this sense will learn to discriminate between conditions in which bribes are in effect and those in which they are not, so the parent who often uses bribes will no doubt eventually find that the child complies only when a bribe is offered.

    The child will not learn to initiate appropriate behavior if the initiation rests with the one who offers the bribe. Over the long run, therefore, compliance with bribes will probably interfere with the effects of more constructive contingencies. If reinforcement works at all in such cases, it is in strengthening compliance with bribes, which is hardly the best way to make use of reinforcers. When such unintended stimulus control develops, it is important to teach the parent to reinforce compliance without explicitly stating the contingency, or at least to reinforce compliance both when the contingency is explicitly stated and when it is not.

    As for the parent who has heard the language of bribes applied to the practice of reinforcement and is therefore reluctant to deliver reinforcers, it is crucial to teach that parent not to accompany the arrangement of contingencies for a child’s behavior with statements of those contingencies. And that is probably good advice for teachers and clinicians too.



Karen Pryor's picture


Charlie, this is fascinating. Thank you so much for your explanation. I think many of our reinforcement using community will find this discussion extremely illuminating.

May I broadcast the title and expected pub date of your forthcoming handbook? People will want to know!



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