Can Free Cell Phones Motivate Kids to Learn? (UPDATED)

An experiment with 1,500 kids in Oklahoma City, led by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, hopes to find out.

We use financial incentives all the time, but does incentivizing education—paying excellent teachers more money, paying students for grades, even paying students (and their parents) for better performance—work?

Enter Roland Fryer, an economist at Harvard University, whose research hinges upon whether giving students a culturally relevant incentive will impact achievement. So far, his experiments have been attempted in many cities around the country.

Earlier today, Fryer began a nine-month experiment in Oklahoma City, giving away 1,500 free cell phones to 6th and 7th graders, as part of The Million program. All students will receive a phone with 300 minutes and text-messaging capabilities. One-third will get a set number of minutes each month, while two-thirds can earn minutes in exchange for reading books. If a student reads a book and scores well on a subsequent test, it gets converted to phone time. Students will also be sent a mixture of fact-based ("high school graduates make more money") and persuasive-based ("did you ever notice there's no business card for fry cook?") text messages to see which is more effective at inspiring achievement. Samsung donated the phones; TracFone Wirless provided the minutes and the texts.

"We're making academic success as covetable as a Cadillac Escalade or a Jay-Z album to address the demand side of the equation," said Andrew Essex, CEO of Droga5, the advertising agency that conceived of The Million. "We're giving kids something they actually want."

But results from using incentives appear to be mixed. While paying older kids is typically less effective, when Fryer paid elementary kids in Dallas $2 for each book they read, students made substantial gains on test scores. Fryer's research (PDF) has concluded that incentives only work when the goal is "softer," say, or for things like reading more books or turning in homework. Whereas when "harder" goals are concerned, for things like raising test scores or grades, incentives tend not to work as well.

Back in 2008, The Million was previously attempted with 2,500 New York City school kids, but a lack of private donations later killed the initiative.

In terms of incentivizing education, do prizes interfere with learning for learning's sake? Will cell phones ultimately motivate students to learn? What's your prediction?


Photos courtesy of The Million.

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