“I desire to do Your will, O my God; Your law is within my heart” (Psalm 40:8).

His name is Roland Fryer, Jr. and he has quite the resume. Check it out.

He is the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University and faculty director of the Education Innovation Laboratory (EdLabs). Fryer’s research combines economic theory, em- pirical evidence, and randomized experiments to help design more effective government policies. His work on education, inequality, and race has been widely cited in media outlets and Congres- sional testimony.

Professor Fryer was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and the John Bates Clark Medal — given by the American Eco- nomic Association to the best American Economist under age 40. Among other honors, he is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a recipient of the Calvó- Armengol Prize and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. At age 30, he became the youngest African-American to receive tenure at Harvard.

Fryer has spent the past decade testing out a va- riety of incentive schemes in experiments with public school students in Houston, New York, Chi- cago, and other American cities that have school systems with high poverty rates. Fryer has paid parents for attending parent-teacher confer- ences, students for reading books, and teachers for raising their students’ test scores. He has given kids cell phones to inspire them to study harder. Altogether, he has handed out millions of dollars in rewards and prizes. As a body of work, Fryer’s incentive studies have marked one of the biggest and most thor- ough educational experiments in American history.

Here are some highlights:

In New York City, between 2007 and 2010, Fryer oversaw and evaluated a program jointly admin- istered by the city’s education department and its teachers’ union that distributed $75 million in cash incentives to teachers in some of the city’s most low-performing schools.

Between 2007 and 2009, Fryer distributed a total of $9.4 million in cash incentives to 27,000 stu- dents in Chicago, Dallas, and New York City, in- centivizing book reading in Dallas, test scores in New York, and course grades in Chicago.

centives to fifth-grade students in 25 low- performing public schools, as well as to the par- ents and teachers of those students, with the in- tent of increasing the time they spent on math homework and improving their scores on stand- ardized math tests.

And the result of all of this: in almost every case, the effect of Fryer’s incentive programs has been… zero.

“I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teach- er behavior. If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, espe- cially in larger schools.”

“The results from our incentive experiments are surprising,” Fryer reported. “The impact of financial incentives on student achieve- ment is statistically 0 in each city.”

So, if money doesn’t motivate us, what does?

Enter Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, two professors of psychology at the University of Rochester. Deci and Ryan came up with the be- ginnings of their theory in the 1970s, during a moment in the history of psychology when the field was mostly dominated by behaviorists, who believed that people’s actions were governed solely by their motivation to fulfill basic biological needs and thus were highly responsive to straightforward rewards and punishments. (the carrot and the stick from last two weeks.)

Deci and Ryan, by contrast, argued that we are mostly motivated not by the material conse- quences of our actions, but by the inherent en- joyment and meaning that those actions bring us, a phenomenon they labeled intrin- sic motivation. They identified three key human needs— our need for competence, our need for autonomy, and our need for relatedness, meaning personal connection. And they contend- ed that intrinsic motivation can be sustained only when we feel that those needs are being satis- fied.

Next week – autonomy.

Father Kevin

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