Paying Students Can Pay Off

Published April 1, 2008

Some schools’ policies for rewarding student achievement have made the news lately. An article in the February 13 edition of Education Week, “Promises of Money Meant to Heighten Student Motivation,” identified programs in places as diverse as Fulton County, Georgia and New York City that pay students in various ways if they apply themselves to doing better in school. At about the same time, February 10 to be exact, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a similar article.

This is not a totally new concept, but the reports note the trend is growing. In fact, the Inquirer states, “financial incentives are becoming a hallmark of antipoverty efforts in New York.”

There, not only are students eligible for payments, but so are adults. For example, students in high-poverty high schools can receive up to $1,000 for passing an Advanced Placement (AP) test, while low-income adults can be paid for attending parent-teacher conferences or for having a full-time job.

Some people object to such efforts even though they are not affected by them. This is a result of one of the problems of public schools–their political nature. If a school district’s administration, staff, students, parents, and general taxpayers have no problem with a different approach that shows promise, why should anyone else be able to cause problems just because the idea offends their sensibilities?

All Stress Rewards

In an earlier commentary on this subject a few years ago, I noted if those objecting to students being paid to do what they theoretically should be doing anyway want to be consistent, they should object to teachers being paid for what they should be doing. A few days ago I came across a column written by someone in Ohio who had read my comment and said it was the most absurd thing he has seen.

He’s right. It is absurd. That was the point. Although he can read and write, he apparently cannot recognize irony.

The reality is that all schools heavily stress rewards, including financial ones, to motivate students. Non-monetary rewards include giving gold stars in the primary grades for higher achievement, and giving As or honor-roll status at higher levels. No rewards would mean no motivation and dismal results.

Schools Reward Attendance

While working on an educational project in Cleveland, Ohio some years ago, I came across an unusual example of such a reward.

Ohio, like other states, provides funds to local districts based on enrollment. However, Ohio decides the enrollment number by selecting one school day each year as the basis for the count. In an attempt to boost that figure, Cleveland filled that day with special rewards–giving kids free ice cream and cake, even free pizza, to maximize the number of students coming to school.

The rest of the year, school attendance doesn’t matter much in Ohio. With state funds of perhaps thousands of dollars per student at risk, the district’s actions are understandable, even if the results might be viewed as a form of fraud.

History Repeats Itself

As for direct payments to students, how about scholarships amounting to thousands of dollars for those who do well? No one objects to that. Many are awarded at high school graduation ceremonies.

I graduated from high school more than 60 years ago, in a town in Vermont. Even then, those of us who were on the honor roll received a certificate from the Pepsi Cola Company that was good to defray college tuition.

It was a modest amount, but college tuition then was itself modest. Here was not only a payment to students, but it was from a commercial company that received free publicity in the local press each year. No one objected.

A more recent example is a Southern school district that reportedly offered a car (used, not new) to a student who had perfect attendance for the year. In the event more than one student qualified, a lottery would pick the winner. Apparently, no one objected.

A classic contemporary example of how students react to payments comes from Dallas. In 1996, 29 students in 10 high-poverty schools got passing scores on AP exams. Then payments for passing the tests were introduced. By 2007, the number of students who passed had soared to 664.

David Kirkpatrick ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education at the U.S. Freedom Foundation in Washington, DC.