College & Workforce Readiness

An Effective Way to Change School Climate: Offer Money

By Ross Brenneman — July 02, 2013 2 min read
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You can’t motivate people; you can only create a motivating environment. You know what helps with that? Free stuff. In college, students tend to show up more willingly to any event that involves free pizza.

Two unconnected stories both exemplify that at any age range, positive reinforcement works wonders.

First, in Kentucky: The state has been offering districts $10,000 each to raise their minimum dropout age to 18. President Obama called for all states to raise their dropout ages to 18, but states have thus far seemed largely reluctant to heed the bully pulpit. Only Maryland responded, raising the dropout age from 16 to 18 years old. But otherwise, nada.

Kentucky is taking a carrot-wrapped stick approach: The state legislature passed SB 97 earlier this year, which Gov. Steve Beshear signed on March 18. The law states that raising the compulsory age of attendance is voluntary for districts—until 55 percent of them have done so, at which point the law becomes mandatory statewide, leaving four years for implementation.

Then came the grease. The state education department promised $10,000 to every school district that implemented a dropout age of 18, in a campaign called “Blitz to 96.” (Ninety-six districts mark the 55 percent threshold.) The money is not a permanent offer.

The blitz started June 25. As of today, at least 75 districts have signed on.

“I’m ecstatic that so many school districts are taking immediate steps to help students build a better future by encouraging them to stay in school through graduation,” said Gov. Beshear in a press release. “The fact that so many districts have adopted the graduation age so quickly shows that our communities understand the importance of changing this antiquated policy, and I congratulate them for their action.”

School districts no doubt see which way the wind is blowing. Kentucky has been particularly aggressive in raising its graduation rates, improving 14 percentage points between 1999 and 2010, passing the national average in the process. Half of that progress came beginning in 2009.

Elsewhere, the South Jersey Times has a cute story about how schools use rewards to entice students to meet certain academic goals. How many principals have now kissed a farm animal after pupils read enough books?

Many may note that federal policy tends to work along these lines; the Obama administration loves its competitive grants.

We are all just college students looking for pizza.

Photo: Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear during a press conference at the Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., in 2012. —Roger Alford/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.