Cashing In on School

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Every other Friday, 77 potential dropouts in Little Silver, N.J., receive a check for $50 from their high school.

To earn the money, they simply do what most of their classmates are expected to do without being paid: come to school, arrive on time, complete their homework, and behave properly.

"What we're doing," says Robert M. Nogueira, principal of Little Silver's Red Bank Regional High School, "is putting out an incentive for those kids for whom the normal incentives don't work."

The New Jersey town is not alone in concluding that money may be a stronger incentive than abstract satisfactions in the struggle against intractable school problems.

Little Silver is using funds from the federal job-training program to convince at-risk students to stay in school.

But in a growing number of other communities, corporate gifts and payments from foundation grants are providing the motivational push that once might have come from the promise of scholarship aid or a plain gold star.

"These kids are not attracted to the kinds of things that the honor student responds to," says Red Bank High's Mr. Nogueira.

Many other school administrators concur. They say that only short-term incentive programs--ones relying heavily on cash, merchandise, or concert tickets--have been effective in reaching many high-risk students. Frequently, they add, such programs have also been needed to hold the interest of average or even above-average students.

But others argue that the new incentives are a step in the wrong direction. Doing little to promote the intrinsic value of learning, such pay-offs, they say, are a quick-fix solution to long-term problems.

"If you say, 'We will reward you for doing the minimum,' you're really saying that you don't expect them to do very much," asserts Wilbur B. Brookover, professor emeritus of education and sociology at Michigan State University.

"If you give rewards for low levels of performance," he says, "you're saying, 'You are a dummy, and we will pay you for staying in school for being a dummy."'

'Immediate Feedback'

Although schools have long used the incentive system to reward and promote achievement, these new programs represent a significant departure, according to critics, because they rely on immediate gratification.

Such an emphasis, they say, reflects the increasingly material nature of the American culture--and the fact that children, like adults, now need to be "paid" to perform a task.

"We're rearing them in a very immediate-feedback type of society," says Kathleen Tichenor, principal of All Saints School in Indianapolis. "How can you compare hanging up a paper with a star on it to going to a Michael Jackson concert?"

"We can argue about it until we're blue in the face, but the fact is that they're not doing what we expect them to be doing," says Ms. Tichenor, whose elementary school promoted good behavior last year by holding a year-end lottery for a bicycle in each classroom. Students received a ballot for each incident-free week.

"Ideally, a student would achieve because of the intrinsic values within himself," says Ron Cellers, principal of Murrah High School in Jackson, Miss. "But we live in a capitalist, materialist society, which is partly what makes us a great country."

Children today no longer have the elaborate family and community support systems that used to sustain them, notes James Comer, the Maurice Falk Professor of child psychiatry at Yale University's Child Study Center. As a result, schools have been forced to draw upon external reward systems for motivation, he says.

Enticing Rewards

And in some cases, the rewards can be very enticing--not only for low-achieving students, but for others as well. For example:

At Hayward High School in Hayward, Calif., at-risk students can receive up to $250 at the end of the school year if they meet academic and attendance standards.

In a Decatur, Ill., program, disadvantaged students can get, every three months, up to $300 in coupons redeemable at local stores. The coupons are awarded for the completion of education-related goals by the both the student and his parents.

At Byck Elementary School in Louisville, Ky., all students who meet attendance, grading, and behavior requirements get special checks that can be redeemed at a new K-Mart store located on the school's second floor. The mini-store is the result of school officials' interest in providing consumer education; they wanted to set up a store-like experience for children, and K-Mart officials agreed to provide it in the school itself.

And in 160 schools across California, academically gifted minority students who participate in mesa, a program to bolster their interest in mathematics, science, and engineering, can earn from $10 to $200 per academic quarter.

Changing the Goals

The mesa program has been in existence for 10 years. But the upsurge in similar--and often less academically oriented--initiatives is a recent phenomenon--and one some educators find troubling.

It represents, they say, a departure from the standard incentive programs for at-risk youths, which promise a better future, rather than immediate gain.

In Boston, for example, the school system and private industry have worked together to convince students to stay in school by promising a job for every graduate.

And the "I Have A Dream" program, begun by the New York City industrialist Eugene Lang and now operating in 16 cities nationwide, provides college scholarships for low-income students who complete high school.

The popularity of short-term incentive plans is growing, however, particularly those targeted at at-risk students. And now even some philanthropic foundations have given the green light for their use in school-improvement efforts.

The Dayton-Hudson Foundation, for example, is financing dropout-prevention programs in five cities that will include as one of their features performance-based financial incentives. And the Annie P. Casey Foundation, which is donating up to $10 million to each of five cities crafting innovative dropout-prevention strategies, will allow part of the grants to be used to finance cash bonuses for students.

Officials in Savannah, Ga., one of the cities competing for the Casey awards, have included as part of their proposal a $1,000 cash payment to graduating seniors.

Private-industry councils, which support the Little Silver, N.J., program and one of the Decatur, Ill., programs, do so by targeting funds from federal Job Training Partnership Act grants for this purpose.

'Rewarded for Success'

Many school officials say this shift in emphasis reflects the entrenched nature of the dropout problem, which has been stubbornly resistant to other approaches. Today's at-risk youths have often experienced repeated failure, they argue, and need incentives they perceive to be within their reach.

"Many of the kids don't relate to a scholarship program at all," reports James Forstall, associate director of grant programs for the Illinois Board of Higher Education, which is supporting incentive programs in several cities across the state. "You become interested in scholarships during your senior year, when you don't have the grades to get one."

Other supporters argue that by rewarding effort--not just achievement--such students will gain the motivating self-confidence that comes with success.

"Students are not being paid to go to school," explains Gordon Pipkin, principal of the Hayward, Calif., high school. "They are being rewarded for success."

'An Outreach Technique'

Because of such programs' novelty, their effectiveness has not yet been formally evaluated. But anecdotal evidence from schools where they are offered suggests they may, if combined with other services, produce better overall attendance rates and fewer discipline problems.

Andrew Hahn, an assistant dean at the Heller Graduate School at Brandeis University and a researcher who has studied at-risk youths, says the most successful incentive programs provide a range of services that includes academic, social, and vocational aid as well as money.

In comprehensive programs, he concludes, the financial incentive is ''just an outreach technique."

Traditional programs for troubled students "don't have poor kids, especially males, knocking at our doors," Mr. Hahn says. This lack of interest results from the fact that students "know most of the programs are jive," he adds.

In weak programs, the Brandeis researcher says, "the incentive itself becomes the program."

"It would be a tragic mistake," he warns, "to use an incentive as a quick fix."

Even those who criticize the short-term incentives agree that they grow out of long-standing flaws in the education system.

Labeled as Failures

Students targeted for such programs, they say, have often been made to feel like failures since the beginning of their school careers. Labeled early on as poor learners, they have rarely been pushed to achieve.

And now, in an irony not lost on some critics, these same students are being paid to do what they have been told implicitly they cannot: succeed.

"We identify students as inferior and we don't try to teach them what we teach other kids," says Mr. Brookover of Michigan State. "Teachers may be systematically denying some kids the opportunity to get gold stars."

"We have to start with the assumption that all kids are going to do well--and design a school system that will accomplish that," he maintains.

Maureen McCormack, a special adviser on education to Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, echoes this view. "So the kid comes from a low-income background. Does that exonerate the school?" she asks.

"When people throw in the stuff about the family background," Ms. McCormack says, "I just don't buy it. I've seen too many kids with less fortunate backgrounds succeed."

'Intellectual Freelancers'

But to many, the most serious shortcoming of the new incentive programs is their failure to convince students that learning for its own sake is a worthy goal.

By offering cash and merchandise incentives, says John Holdren, a senior associate at the Council for Basic Education, "you get a bunch of intellectual freelancers--they'll do it if it's for money."

"The underlying expectation is that you ought to learn because it is the right thing to do," adds Ms. McCormack, "but these programs ignore that. It has nothing to do with what's right or best, or what's good."

"Schools should be developing intrinsic motivation," she says. "What happens when the gift isn't there any more?"

Likewise, the critics point out, by offering such incentives, schools may be validating many students' negative perception of the learning process.

"Why aren't teachers looking at why these kids aren't motivated?" asks Mr. Comer of Yale. "They try to deal with abstract things that have less meaning and are boring to most kids."

A Marketing Tool?

The commercial stake in some of the short-term incentive programs also worries some observers. They express the concern that, though most businesses become involved as a means of spurring academic improvement, schools may nonetheless become an unwitting marketing tool.

The Ponderosa Restaurant chain, for example, offers free dinners to elementary-school children in Michigan who maintain perfect attendance records during a grading period. But according to Terry Terhune, an assistant vice president and district manager for the chain, restaurants often gain additional business from the arrangement because family members accompany the child.

Likewise, the Decatur, Ill., incentive program was designed not only to aid school improvement, but also to help businesses in the city's struggling downtown area. Every two weeks, when successful students carry their coupon books downtown, the stores there benefit from an estimated $3,000 in purchases they might not have gotten otherwise.

"When a business wants to get consumers, they are going to market their efforts to the most impressionable," says Sheila Hardy, author of a book on corporate influences in schools. "Children are the most impressionable."

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