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Promises of Money Meant to Heighten Student Motivation

By Katie Ash — February 08, 2008 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 6 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Benia C. Richardson.

Does motivating students to study harder with the promise of cash sound like innovation—or bribery?

That’s a question educators and researchers have been debating, amid concerns that money-for-achievement programs actually decrease students’ intrinsic motivation to learn and send mixed messages about studying.

But the idea is catching on, with new cash-incentive programs planning to give money to students this school year in the Baltimore school district and some schools in an Atlanta suburb. Last school year, the 1.1 million-student New York City school system began a program to evaluate the effect of paying students for academic performance, joining a growing list of those testing the idea.

“The possible outcomes from … not graduating from high school are so great that I felt that putting a program in place that could rescue some of these students was a small risk to take,” said Andrés Alonso, the chief executive officer of the 82,000-student Baltimore system, which is in the process of launching its new money-for-achievement program.

The program will award 10th and 11th graders who have failed at least one of their state graduation exams $25 if they show a 5 percent increase on the first of their benchmark assessments, which students take throughout the year.

Students are then eligible to earn another $35 if they increase their scores by an additional 15 percent on the next benchmark assessment, and $50 if they raise their scores by another 20 percent after that, bringing their total potential earnings to as much as $110 a year.

The program is especially geared to students who may not be able to take advantage of after-school tutoring programs because of financial needs that require them to have jobs, Mr. Alonso added. “This is a way to reimburse them for missing that work,” he said.

Doubts Overcome

Mr. Alonso concedes the $110 is not nearly as much they could earn working after school. (It amounts to about 18 hours of work at the minimum wage in Maryland of $6.15 an hour.) But it could be enough for students to take a few days off to attend tutoring sessions.

The state expects to pay $935,000 for the incentives, which are part of a $6.3 million Maryland initiative aimed at increasing state graduation-exam scores. That initiative also includes money to pay high school peer tutors at a rate of $10 per hour.

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“I think [the incentive program] is a very, very positive thing,” said Benia C. Richardson, a senior at Western High School in Baltimore and the president of her school’s Student Government Association. “[School officials] have to say, OK, [students] want to graduate, but what’s going to keep them here right now?”

Ms. Richardson admitted that she was skeptical about the program when it was first introduced in January, but now that her initial questions have been answered, she fully supports the effort.

“There is a lot of energy behind [this],” she said. “You’re always going to have doubters, … but I think the only way you can be a doubter is if you don’t know [the specifics of the program].”

Similarly, in suburban Atlanta, two schools in the 88,000-student Fulton County, Ga., district will take part in a privately financed, 15-week pilot program, called Learn and Earn, which aims to boost students’ progress and achievement in mathematics and science through cash incentives.

Twenty 11th graders from the 2,500-student Creekside High School and 20 8th graders from the 985-student Bear Creek Middle School have been selected to participate in the program, launched in January, based on their attendance records, grades, previous test scores, and socioeconomic status.

Like Baltimore’s program, Learn and Earn especially targets 11th graders who have part-time jobs and have trouble attending after-school study sessions, said Gregory O. Fields, the Fulton County schools’ assistant superintendent for high school curriculum.

The students earn $8 an hour by attending the after-school math and science tutorial sessions for up to four hours a week, and they can earn a bonus—$75 for 8th graders and $125 for 11th graders—if they achieve at least a B average in both their math and science courses and pass the state exams in those subjects.

“The most important outcome within all of this is to help these students build the necessary confidence and awareness of their genuine educational abilities to be successful in school and life,” Mr. Fields said.

The $60,000 program has been funded by Charles Loudermilk, the founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Aaron Rents Inc., through the Atlanta-based Learning Makes a Difference Foundation.

“You would love for students to be self-motivated, but … if [they] don’t realize that’s achievable, [they] don’t necessarily strive to do that,” said Jackie Cushman, the chairman of the Learning Makes a Difference board of directors.

‘Tangible for Kids’

In starting Baltimore’s money-for-achievement program, Mr. Alonso was influenced by a similar initiative launched in the New York City district. He was the deputy chancellor there while that program was being formed.

The privately-funded New York program, established by Roland G. Fryer, the chief equality officer for the city’s department of education and an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University, rewards 4th and 7th graders with cash based on their performance on year-round assessments. Fourth-graders could earn up to $250 per year, while 7th-graders could earn as much as $500.

The program, which is part of a bigger initiative aimed at expanding opportunities for low-income families called Opportunity NYC, has a budget of $6 million over two years.

“If you live in a more affluent neighborhood, you see automatically that education pays off. When you live in [a low-income community], it’s harder to understand,” Mr. Fryer said. “These programs, when done right, are trying to make education more tangible for kids.”

So far, the city has no data on the outcomes of the initiative, which began in 60 schools last June.

Research on other programs has begun to trickle in, although the jury is still out on their effectiveness.

See Also

Should students be given the chance to cash in on their AP scores? Join the discussion.

A recent study by C. Kirabo Jackson, a professor of labor economics at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., found that a Texas program that pays students in disadvantaged public schools for passing Advanced Placement exams has been accompanied by increased participation in AP classes and higher scores on the exams. (“Tying Cash Awards to AP-Exam Scores Seen as Paying Off,” Jan. 16, 2008.)

But Mr. Jackson isn’t so sure that the promise of cash is solely responsible for the increase.

“[It’s] more that there’s a cultural change in the school on the part of the teachers and the students,” he said. “Teachers have a more inclusive attitude towards AP tests, and students are more likely to take them.”

Strategy Debated

However, some critics believe that using external rewards to motivate students can squelch internal desire, or intrinsic motivation, to learn.

“The assumption seems to be [that] what works to train the family pet will also work to help children become engaged and proficient learners,” said Alfie Kohn, an education writer and a leading opponent of cash-incentive programs. “Unfortunately, the available research unequivocally shows that dangling incentives in front of kids isn’t just ineffective, but actually counterproductive.”

But not all researchers dismiss cash-for-scores programs.

“These programs can either be pretty sensible, or they can sound pretty catastrophic,” said Daniel T.Willingham, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.

Programs with the best results tend to “pay a lot of attention to who the students are, and have a very clear rationale in mind as to why you are choosing to reward these students,” he said.

Reducing students’ intrinsic motivation to study may be a risk educators are taking, but “it may not be a danger [with these programs] because you only get that effect when you’re dealing with something the student liked to do [in the first place],” Mr.Willingham added.

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2008 edition of Education Week

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