While touring the charming and expectations-exceeding city of Charleston, South Carolina in November, we saw old stand oak trees, the greatest concentration of antebellum houses in the country, and dolphins feeding and playing a few feet from the seawall.
I was very impressed and hopeful to see that the event was packed. Everywhere, young people were pushing around with bags full of newly purchased hardcovers, rushing to stand in line to hear authors and participate in signings.
The age of the the attendees ranged from 12 to 17, and one immediately obvious demographic was that, by my statistically irrelevant count of about 20 people, about 80% of the attendees were young women.
It was gratifying to see that there was a voracious appetite for a diverse set of work, by a very established cast of authors that I had never heard of (there were about 65 at the fair). Also, seeing the excitement and energy of these young people reminded me of a Wired magazine article that I read years ago. The article discussed an interesting analysis and discussion paper from of a series of experiments in over 200 urban schools to study the effectiveness of various incentive programs on student performance. These studies asked the question – what if we spend money directly on incentivizing students? The studies were scientific in that they included control groups, were normalized for a number of socio-economic factors, and there were two general types of student incentives studied. (Teacher incentives were also studied in a limited way – read the report if interested!)
Some students were given performance-based cash incentives, such as money for grades on their report card or for higher standardized test scores. Others were given behavior-based incentives for attending class or reading books. The reason that I remembered this study in Charlotte was that to the surprise of many, by many metrics, the test scores for the students who were paid to read books improved the most. Even more surprisingly, it wasn’t just their verbal scores that increased – some improvement appeared to be seen in math as well.
That said, I actually did my own reading of the source paper/data for a subset of the studies, and I don’t think that enough attention was paid to several skew/weighting factors in the study, specifically that certain incentives were tested only on certain age groups and that the data suggest that bilingual students may have accounted for an oversized amount of the “book reader” numbers from the portion of the study conducted in Dallas. Also, the authors of the studies and the analysts who have looked at these since made it quite clear that more investigation is required to confirm any statistically significant results.
Still, whenever I see kids reading on the subway, I feel hopeful. And YALLFEST makes me believe that just maybe we can improve US skill levels by giving children the love and confidence for reading that opens the doors to learning everything else in the universe.
Finally, I need to give a shout out to our friends who hosted us for a wonderful evening in Charleston and provided critical tips for our South Carolina and Georgia experience.
And also to an epic food idea perfectly executed. Excellent cookies, plus ice cream plus pie. Please open these across the country – I need to try all of the flavors.
Kathryn Tully and Shane Sesta are a married couple, one American and one Brit, who are spending a year traveling across America and writing about their discoveries. Sonny is their rescue cat and fried chicken aficionado.