A story in The Houston Chronicle yesterday once again brought up the ever-controversial topic of student incentives. This time, though, the article focused on giving away prizes for perfect attendance, rather than high test scores. According to the article, under No Child Left Behind, the amount of federal funding each school receives is partly contingent on attendance rates, so even schools with attendance rates in the 96th percentile feel pressured to motivate kids to come to school more often, since even one percentage point could mean thousands more dollars in federal funding.
However, not everyone thinks this is a good idea.
School leaders see these perks, ideally, as part of a portfolio of programs to inspire better attendance. But critics of academic incentives brand them as foolish. And reactions by school nurses, concerned about sick children spreading their illnesses to classmates, are lukewarm at best.
Whether or not students--who are promised prizes such as bicycles, gift certificates, and cash--are actually responding to the incentives is still up in the air. Some districts have noticed a change, while others haven’t seen any improvement. The article also mentions a similar program in Massachusetts, which rewarded kids for good grades or perfect attendance, that was eliminated this school year after the district decided it wasn’t making enough of a difference.
So what does all that mean? As usual, it’s unclear. It seems like the gains that schools are seeing in attendance rates because of incentive programs are fairly small, if they see gains at all. As the article mentions, a lot of the factors that lead to a child missing school can’t be solved by offering them a bike. That doesn’t make a sick kid well or help a parent who has to work an early shift be home in the mornings to get the kids moving.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Motivation Matters blog.