Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Is the next X-Prize the "E"-Prize?

Alex Tabarrok over at Marginal Revolution is intrigued by the way that Ronald Fryer, a junior fellow at Harvard, has employed a reward system of paying students for performance in a study he has undertaken to help improve the grades of inner city school youth in New York City. The students can earn $20 if they show improvement on tests given every three weeks.

While this approach seems to be working, I think the methodology is flawed. Because of the nominal amount given to each student, the reward is more akin to giving out shiny star stickers than any attempt at long-term improvement. What most likely will happen over time is a conditioning effect upon the students where ever greater rewards are needed for each marginal improvement. The next time $20 won't be enough, but $40, $75, $100, etc. will be needed to extract the same level of improvement. Not only will schools not have the resources to finance this, but it will set students up to become addicted to these rewards. Meaning if the cash is taken away, you can expect student performance to fall below the initial achievement level.

One question that Tabarrok fails to ask of Fryer is why the mostly Black and Hispanic students do not feel the need to compete for educational attainment, yet they are fiercely competitive when it comes to extra-curricular activities, especially organized sports? Even though most kids know they have no shot at stardom, athletic competition is anything but a passive activity. One could even say that sports go overboard in their attempt get their athletes to win at all costs. Perhaps it is because the reward system in sports is organized to a particular goal with a sizable reward rather than incremental payouts. Therefore, student-athletes channel their energy into achieving that goal whether it is winning the state championship or medaling at an event. In academics, there is no parallel system of long-term rewards for many kids who cannot envision themselves as Ivy-League material.

An alternate method that rewards long-term achievement over short-term gains is modeled after the Ansari X-Prize, recently won by the Paul Allen backed SpaceShipOne team of Scaled Composites. Like the X-Prize, the "E-Prize," would incentivize students to excel beyond normative achievement because of the prospect of a large reward instead of nominal, reoccuring sums. However, unlike the X-Prize, the E-Prize would give each student who improved their grades a chance to win the ultimate prize given either each semester or at the end of the year.

A way for it to work may be similar to this:

*At the beginning of the semester, in each class, students are told that they may be eligible to win a sizable prize of their choice if they achieve certain measurable goals or test well on the final exam.

*Students are allowed to tell the teacher what kind of reward they would like to get if they win. Some may choose a particular gift, others may just want cash, and a few may request a non-monetary prize--like free class time.

*Arranged in lottery fashion, the chance that a student will win is based upon how well a student performed, with high achieving students getting more chances. For instance, if a student improved only marginally, he would get 1 chance, while a student who improved considerably would receive 5 chances. The weighting would dependent on overall achievement.

*Once the chance receipts are allocated, a lottery will determine the winner of the raffle. The winners will be publicly announced and celebrated.

I think the above system would be an improvement over just paying students a few bucks each month to get their grades up. Moreover, it would clearly motivate the entire class to improve, rather than just the kids with the lowest expectations.

Monday, November 01, 2004

If John Kerry loses...

...then he can blame it on two gratuitous and unnecessary comments he made in the debates that has given the Bush campaign ammunition to attack Kerry. And more importantly they sucked up critical airtime which has muted Kerry's attempt to get out his message of change (nee Fresh Start).

First Kerry comes out with the "global test" mantra, which although he did state it was not meant to give the international community a veto over American security, it allowed the Bush team to portray it that way. The effect of this has lasted throughout the final month of the campaign, though its effect has lessened a bit recently.

Second, Kerry, in trying answer a question by CBS' Bob Schieffer in the third debate about whether being gay was a choice or not, inserted a reference to Mary Cheney, the Veep's openly gay daughter, and created an unnecessary kerfuffle. Kerry's operatives had to respond to the accusation by the Bush team that Kerry was exploiting Mary Cheney's lesbianism for political purposes. Regardless of whether the Mary Cheney reference was an appropriate point to make (see Andrew Sullivan's comments) it created a political smokescreen that took away from Kerry's impressive showing in the debates, again.

What this underscores is that Kerry has a habit of giving his opponents a way to attack him not because they came up with something good but because Kerry keeps putting his foot in his mouth (see also the "nuisance" comment).