Incentives Can Make Or Break Students

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 2008

The inducements range from prepaid cellphones to MP3 players to gift certificates. But most of them are cash: $10 for New York City seventh-graders who complete a periodic test; $50 for Chicago high school freshmen who ace their courses; as much as $110 to Baltimore students for improved scores on the Maryland High School Assessments.

Desperate for ways to ratchet up test scores and close the achievement gap separating white and minority students, school officials from Tucson to Boston are paying kids who put up good numbers.

The District joined the list this fall, launching a one-year study of 3,300 middle schoolers who can earn up to $100 every two weeks for good grades, behavior and attendance. On Oct. 17, the first payday for the Capital Gains program, students collected an average of $43.

The efforts vary widely in scope and objective. But nearly all trigger passionate arguments about the wisdom of monetizing academic achievement.

Critics denounce the initiatives as bribery and say the money could be better invested in ideas known to work, such as smaller class size. They also point to a body of psychological research suggesting that tangible rewards can erode children's intrinsic motivation. DePaul University education professor Ronald Chennault says there are ethical issues posed by the ventures, most of which are experimental and dependent on private funding and local political support.

"The potential for harm is, what happens after the incentive no longer exists?" Chennault asked. "Not everything is worth trying."

Capital Gains has emerged as an issue in this fall's at-large D.C. Council races. At an education forum last week, candidate Patrick Mara said he was "completely disgusted" by the idea at first but is now willing to see how it works. Incumbent Carol Schwartz said she never would have proposed such a plan but doesn't object. Incumbent Kwame R. Brown and challenger David Schwartzman are opposed, with Brown echoing Chennault's concerns about what happens when awards disappear.

Proponents, who include Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, assert that the initiatives are a modest attempt to give children from low-income families a taste of the rewards, formal and informal, that kids from well-off backgrounds have enjoyed for years.

"Wealthy parents in the suburban area, they give their kids a car. They take them on a trip to Hawaii. They send them around the world," Daley told reporters last month at the launch of the city's "Green for Grades" project. "These kids don't even get out of their homes for many, many years."

Although a flurry of incentive programs have started up in the past year, the idea is as old as gold stars. Some school systems have had cash initiatives in place for years. So what difference do they make?

The evidence, not surprisingly, is murky. Even the apparent success stories come with caveats and qualifications.

For the past 12 years, a Dallas nonprofit group, Advanced Placement Strategies, has targeted more than 100 Texas high schools with predominantly minority and low-income students, offering up to $500 for top scores on AP tests in English, math and science. A new study by Cornell University economist Kirabo Jackson found that the program produced a sizable increase in the number of juniors and seniors taking AP or International Baccalaureate exams. Jackson also linked higher SAT and ACT scores to the effort.

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