Teachers have long said that success is its own reward. But these days, some students are finding that good grades can bring them cash and luxury gifts.
In at least a dozen states this school year, students who bring home top marks can expect more than just gratitude. Examples:
•Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso last week promised to spend more than $935,000 to give high school students as much as $110 each to improve their scores on state graduation exams.
•In New York City, about 9,000 fourth- and seventh-graders in 60 schools are eligible to win as much as $500 for improving their scores on the city's English and math tests, given throughout the school year.
•In suburban Atlanta, a pair of schools last week kicked off a program that will pay 8th- and 11th-grade students $8 an hour for a 15-week "Learn & Earn" after-school study program (the federal minimum wage is currently $5.85).
corporate or philanthropic donors.
The most ambitious experiment began in September, when seven states — Arkansas, Alabama, Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Virginia and Washington — won spots in an Exxon/Mobil-funded program that, in most cases, pays students $100 for each passing grade on advanced placement (AP) college-prep exams.
It's an effort to get low-income and minority students interested in the courses, says Tommie Sue Anthony, president of the Arkansas Advanced Initiative for Math and Science. "We still have students who are not sure of the value, who are not willing to take the courses," she says. "Probably the incentives will make a difference with those students."
Gregg Fleisher of the National Math and Science Initiative, which runs the seven-state program, says the effort is modeled on a program adopted by Dallas in the 1995-96 school year that saw AP course-taking jump substantially. That program is now statewide.
While many educators would blanch at offering kids cash for good grades, Fleisher and others say the idea is simple: "It's an incentive to get them to basically make the right decision and choose a more rigorous class," he says. "This teaches them that if they work at something very hard and have a lot of support, they can do something they didn't think they could do."
An analysis of the Texas program last month by Cornell economist C. Kirabo Jackson found that it linked to a 30% rise in the number of students with high SAT and ACT scores and an 8% rise in college-going students.
But a few critics say the payouts amount to little more than bribes, undermining kids' motivation to do high-quality work when they're not being paid.
"It's a strategy that helps only around the edges," says Thomas Toch of the Education Sector, a Washington think tank. Most students in AP classes "are already internally motivated, and the opportunity to earn college credits for passing AP tests is a bigger motivator than small cash awards."
Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a watchdog group, is more blunt: "Bribing kids for higher test scores — or paying teachers bounties for their students' work — is similar to giving them steroids," he says. "Short-term performance might improve but the long-term effects can be very damaging."
At Northeast Health Science Magnet High School in Macon, Ga., principal Sam Scavella says he's trying lots of different incentives for doing the right thing. If students attend Saturday study sessions, they qualify for an iPod, movie tickets or a dinner for two, among other prizes.
Jessie Humphrey, a sophomore at Northeast, is one of 25 students who made the school's All-A Honor Roll. That entitled her to a slot in a special drawing Thursday. When it was over, she walked away with a 26-inch, flat-screen television set, which now sits in her room.
An honor roll student most years, Jessie, 15, says she usually pulls As and Bs, but this semester, "I got lucky and got all As."
Scavella says the incentives seem to be making a difference — only 10 students made the All-A Honor Roll this time last year.
"We have to reward the behavior we expect," he says. "I don't see it as a way of paying students to do well — it's a reward. If you do well in school, then life will pay you well. If you do well in school , you can afford a lifestyle that will pay you well."
The two-year New York City experiment, begun last September, essentially pays students monthly to do their best on skills tests. If it seems like an economist's dream, that's because it's the brainchild of wunderkind Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who also serves as the schools' chief equality officer. He came up with the idea while trying to figure out how to make school "tangible" for disadvantaged kids with few successful role models. "I just thought that giving them some short-term incentives to do what's in their long-term best interests would be a good way to go."
While teachers talk about success, he says, it's not enough to tell a kid that, in the long term, hard work will pay off. "We're asking them to look down a path that they have probably never seen anyone go down … and then to have the wisdom and the fortitude to wait for their reward."