Fri, Jun 20, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Schools experiment with paying pupils

A Stanford University study shows that school-based rewards programs can raise grades, but critics argue that their effect is short-lived

By Nancy Zuckerbrod  /  AP , WASHINGTON


Friday is payday at KIPP DC: KEY Academy, and some sixth-grade girls gather at the makeshift school store trying to decide how to spend their hard-earned money.

They receive paychecks for behaving well, doing their homework or making academic gains. The money is pretend. But it can be used at the store for genuine items such as pens capped with fluffy feathers, pencil cases shaped like animals and colorful erasers.

Schools, under pressure to boost student achievement, are offering incentives— field trips and cash, for example — to motivate students. Some educators praise the idea as a way to motivate poor learners, but others worry it could wind up leaving students with less incentive to learn if the money for such programs dries up.

At KEY Academy, a publicly funded, nontraditional school serving low-income, minority students in the US capital, Cherise Johnson Wallace proudly clutched a pencil case she bought at the school store. She was glad to have the trinket, but even happier about what it represented.

“It shows how I work very hard to earn good grades,” she said, flashing a smile as she rattled off the subjects in which she earned top grades.

That kind of pride is what supporters of rewards programs point to. They say the prizes motivate youngsters at first, but that the children eventually form good study habits and become interested in succeeding regardless of whether rewards are on the line.

The KEY Academy principal, Sarah Hayes, is a believer.

The academy is among the city’s top-performing schools, as judged by test scores.

“I think a lot of that is tied back to our incentives program because it reinforces to the students that our expectations of time on task are serious and that you get rewarded for them,” Hayes said.

Studies into the effects of school-based rewards programs are limited. But research by an independent think tank at Stanford University indicated they can raise scores. A separate study examining schools in Ohio that paid students for passing state tests also showed score gains after the incentive program was enacted.

In New York, approximately 5,500 students can earn money for getting good test scores. The program is open to fourth graders, who can earn up to US$250 a year, and seventh graders, who can end the year with US$500 in the bank.

“We’ll soon give out over US$1 million to fourth and seventh graders this year,” said Roland Fryer, a Harvard University economist leading the experiment.

He said he is happy with the results so far.

Queen Makkada, president of the parents’ association at a school participating in the program, said the fourth and seventh graders seem to be working harder. She dismissed those who say these kind of approaches amounts to bribery.

“What is the difference between this and giving children an allowance as an incentive for doing their responsibilities?” she said, adding that many parents in her neighborhood cannot afford to give youngsters an allowance. “This program allowed our children to experience what life is like when you have more to work with.”

Some question the long-term impact of rewards programs.

Edward Deci, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester in New York and an expert on motivation, said rewards can persuade children to work harder to boost tests scores. But he said that effect probably would be short-lived.

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