In the early days of compulsory education, the desire to avoid a paddling was often incentive enough for a child to head for class. But now it seems that educators have to offer a little something more—shopping center gift certificates, a full-scale carnival on school grounds, even a laptop computer. Such rewards seem excessive to critics, who say they send the wrong message to students. Still, you can’t entirely blame the schools: The stakes for good attendence have never been higher. Just a handful of absences on an important day can earn an entire school a failing grade under the No Child Left Behind Act or cost it thousands of desperately needed state dollars. Faced with those grim prospects, even a big enticement can seem a small price to pay.
The Incentive: A $1,200 laptop.
The Deal: Starting this year, graduating Lowell High School seniors with good attendance records and school-sanctioned postsecondary plans will be handed a laptop computer along with their diplomas. All they have to do is miss fewer than nine school days during their final year of high school and get accepted by a college or into the military.
The Motivation: If the 3,000-student school in Massachusetts doesn’t pull up its sagging daily attendance rates to 95 percent—the previous year’s rate had dipped to 85 percent—No Child Left Behind regulations call for sanctions. “It’s difficult today to get kids to come into school [for] a variety of reasons,” says administrator David Conway. Many of his inner city students must work after school to help support their families, he says, and the computers serve two purposes: rewarding those who do make it to class regularly and giving a technological leg up to those who wouldn’t otherwise have one.
The Payoff: Whether the new quid pro quo approach will work remains to be seen. Daily attendance had improved to 91 percent by mid-fall, but some say a reward system is the wrong approach. “Treating students like pets by dangling goodies in front of them for exemplary attendance is ... an excellent way to make school even less appealing to them than it already is,” says Massachusettsan and former high school teacher Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Star Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. “The more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.”
DOUBLE OR NOTHING
The Incentive: Gift cards worth up to $150.
The Deal: There’s more to summertime than just hanging out at the mall— like hanging out at the mall with a gift certificate courtesy of the Kansas City, Missouri, school board. Students at any grade level who attend both full-day summer sessions and either have perfect attendance or earn at least a C in all subjects are eligible for the gift cards. Attendees who miss a couple of days can still pull down $100.
The Motivation: Money. Missouri’s funding mechanism is set up to encourage schools to offer summer classes, and Kansas City’s schools get double their usual per-student state allocation from June to July. So even after paying kids their bonuses, local officials say the summer session brings in more state money than they pay out, though the district—the only large system known to remunerate its students with something equivalent to cash—is prickly about the word “pay.” “We’re not paying kids, we’re providing kids [with] an incentive to come to school,” says Edwin Birch, the district’s public-information director.
The Payoff: Summer school enrollment has spiked dramatically since the program began in 2001. In 2000, only about 8,000 students signed up. This past summer, there were more than 14,000.
The Incentive: Dances, movie days, pizzas, CDs, etc.
The Deal: All across Michigan, students who show up on two particular days are showered with goodies—anything and everything from discounted football game tickets to movie showings during ostensibly instructional hours. Some elementary schools even schedule picture day—the day when each child is photographed and few parents allow their kids to be anywhere else—to coincide with one of these two days.
The Motivation: Michigan funds its public schools according to a system familiar to those who have noticed the quadrannual aberration in TV programming known as Sweeps Week. Under state law, on the fourth Wednesday of both September and February of every year, schools must tally how many students show up, and the amount of state money they will get the following school year is based almost exclusively on those two days’ attendance rolls. The total counts for a lot—at least $6,700 per student.
The Payoff: Unclear. Net attendance increases attributable to the so-called count day laws have not been tabulated officially since they went into effect in the mid-1990s.
The Incentive: Carnivals at school, passes to skip homework, snacks.
The Deal: Kids who go to class on the days that standardized tests are bubbled in are gifted with a largess not usually associated with Arizona, which came in 49th in per-pupil spending among all 50 states, according to a recent Education Week study. The Arizona Republic reports that at Bogle Junior High School in Chandler, students can choose extra-credit points or a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card for nightly homework. At Robson Elementary in Mesa, students who come to school are rewarded with an on-site carnival—including booths, rides and clowns—that’s set up smack between Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards test and Stanford 9 test dates.
The Motivation: Arizona rates its schools based on a formula that takes into account, among other factors, their three-year average of Stanford 9 and AIMS scores. “We’re trying to create a generation of students who understands [that] this is their job, this is their responsibility,” Bogle principal Sharon Kenyon told the Republic. “In a job, we all have incentives, even if that’s only your paycheck.”
The Payoff: Many schools across the state have reported increases in attendance and ratings, but no direct link has been made to the enticements.