It used to be that earning an “A” was enough of a reward for doing well in school. Today, in an effort to boost achievement, some schools give students (especially those at risk for low achievement) gift cards or high-tech gadgets. And in a surprising trend, some are rewarding students with cash.

Public schools across the country are experimenting with incentive programs. In urban districts and rural outposts, some schools reward students who earn higher test scores and grades. Rewarding students’ efforts and achievement with gold stars and token prizes is, of course, nothing new. Paying them in cash is another matter.

What’s the short-term impact of these cash-incentive programs on student motivation, grades and test scores? Will this approach engage students in learning for the long haul?

Urban Initiatives for Education Reform

Some cash-incentive programs target low-income and minority students – kids who are underachieving and who are at risk of school failure. Many of these students aren’t on track to graduate from high school, much less go on to college. Three of the most-publicized programs are:

  • New York City’s Spark program (now in its second year), awards fourth- and seventh-graders cash for high achievement on a series of math and reading tests throughout the year. A fourth-grader can earn up to $250 a year, while a seventh-grader can earn up to $500.
  • Washington, D.C.’s Capital Gains program gives middle school students cash rewards for performance in five areas: attendance, behavior and three academic measures, such as completing homework and earning high grades (these determined by individual schools).
  • The Paper Project in Chicago encourages ninth and 10th-grade students in 25 high schools to earn better grades and pass their classes. Every six weeks successful students receive half of their reward money as a check or bank deposit; the other half is awarded to them upon graduation from high school. While the average student earns $800 in reward money per year, a very successful student can earn up to $2,000. Participating banks that receive the deposits offer to teach kids how to manage their accounts.

While these programs are offered at different school levels, all were designed by Dr. Roland Fryer, an economics professor at Harvard University’s Education Innovation Laboratory and his team. Fryer makes it clear that these financial-incentive programs are experimental and are not intended to be the total solution to improving student achievement. After the initial experimental years, he and his team will analyze the program results. From there, they’ll develop additional innovations that are scalable and evidence-based – and in keeping with the overarching goal of improving academic achievement.

It’s important to note that these incentive programs are not funded by taxpayer dollars. Support comes from foundations and other private funders.

Weighing the Pros and Cons

As with any controversial issue, it’s helpful to hear both sides of the story.

Arguments for:

  • Cash-for-grades programs may jump-start students’ motivation by providing real-world rewards for their effort and performance. Proponents liken these rewards to an adult getting a raise or bonus for performing well on a job.
  • Advocates like Chicago mayor Richard Daley and Washington, D.C., school chancellor Michelle Rhee argue that these programs “level the playing field” for low-income kids, since middle- and upper-class families are able to offer their kids cash incentives for academic achievement. They say that for low-income students their situation calls for more drastic, less conventional measures. Many of these kids don’t understand the value and power of education. They may have few adult role models – at home or in their community – who are successful as a result of getting a solid education. Inner-city kids must also resist the lure of gangs or committing crimes to make money. Their worldview may be limited to the “here and now in the ‘hood” – and cash incentives may be an effective tool for getting their attention in school.
  • Students receive tangible rewards and reinforcement at frequent intervals, to maintain their motivation.
  • Some cash-incentive programs also encourage long-term effort and accountability. For example, a student earning an “F” is disqualified and must forfeit the rewards she’s earned to date. And holding back a portion of a student’s reward money until he graduates from high school may keep him focused on the larger goal.

Arguments against:

  • Simply offering financial incentives to students doesn’t address the myriad factors that make up a quality education. Teacher training (and compensation), a solid curriculum, interesting electives, parental involvement, alternative programs, cultural awareness and community support all contribute to student success.
  • Students should only be rewarded for true achievement, not for simply showing up at school or taking a test.
  • Psychologists Bob Brooks and Sam Goldstein explain that research by Edward Deci and others shows most children are, by nature, motivated to learn.”External motivators may be effective and well intended,” Goldstein says, “but they clearly work against the continued development of a child’s intrinsic (innate) motivation. Intrinsic motivation – participating at school for the sheer pleasure of learning – is soon eclipsed by the promise of external rewards, and a child’s natural enthusiasm for learning may be dampened. It doesn’t really teach kids the reward of learning for learning’s sake.”
    What, then, about at-risk students who struggle in school? Goldstein and Brooks go on to explain that our education system has determined that students who struggle need a greater degree of external motivation to stay engaged in academic tasks. Yet it is exactly these students whose intrinsic (natural) motivation must be nurtured and reinforced.
  • Teneh Weller, who operates the High Expectations Parental Service in the San Francisco Bay Area, admits that money motivates kids. “But, while it might re-ignite kids’ motivation in the short term, we need to reinforce their intrinsic motivation to see lasting results,” Weller says.
  • Even skeptics with no knowledge of research on motivation ask, “What happens when the reward is no longer offered? Do schools have to keep raising the stakes to keep students engaged?”

New President, New Agenda for Education

What’s the national perspective on motivating students? Cash-for-grades programs do not appear to be part of President Barack Obama’s agenda for education. According to the official White House Web site, the president’s education agenda includes “asking parents to take responsibility for their children’s success; and recruiting, retaining and rewarding an army of new teachers to fill new successful schools that prepare our children for success in college and the workforce.” The Obama administration will “address the dropout crisis by passing legislation to provide funding to school districts to invest in intervention strategies in middle school – strategies such as personal academic plans, teaching teams, parent involvement, mentoring, intensive reading and math instruction, and extended learning time.” Finally, it will “support college outreach programs like GEAR UP, TRIO and Upward Bound to encourage more young people from low-income families to consider and prepare for college.”

Quick Fix or Lasting Lesson?

Is the cash-for-good grades approach a short-term remedy to a complex problem? Or will students learn longer-lasting lessons when educators, parents and communities provide programs and services that reinforce kids’ desire to learn and teach them lifelong skills?

When asked how the programs are working so far, a spokesperson at the Education Innovation Laboratory would only say that results won’t be made public until late 2009, after Fryer and his associates have had time to collect and analyze the data. Fryer claims that, if the approach fails, he’ll be the first one to recommend pulling the plug – or adding other components to round out the programs.

Regardless of the outcome, the widespread publicity for these programs may ultimately serve to make the public more aware of the challenges faced by low-income, at-risk students – as well as their parents and teachers – when it comes to gaining momentum in education.

The Power of Parent Involvement

Weller points out, “Parents are the driving force in their children’s educational success. They’re hungry for information and guidance on how to support their kids and reinforce what they’re learning at school.” Yet many parents, she says, are unfamiliar with – and intimidated by – today’s education terminology and systems. Investing in parent outreach and training benefits everyone involved.

Having worked with hundreds of low-income minority parents, Weller fears that if schools pay their kids for good grades, it gives parents an excuse to let the school take over and let money become the motivating factor. “Parents want to have power with their kids,” Weller emphasizes. “I’ve seen amazing results when schools and parents work together to help kids succeed.”