Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Greenbacks for Grades: Schools Use Material Rewards as Incentive

Cash and prizes boost student performance — but is the means worth the ends?

August 13, 2008
Credit: Corbis

Seventh graders at New York City's Junior High School 123 have big plans for the cash they're earning for their scores on math and reading tests. By early June, Krizya had racked up $252 and was going clothes shopping. Ashanti has banked $277 so far. "I'm saving it so I can go to a good college," he says.

Krizya and Ashanti, along with more than 5,200 fourth and seventh graders in fifty-eight city public schools, are part of an ambitious experiment to test whether paying students for grades improves their performance. The question is gaining urgency around the country as school districts dangle all kinds of rewards to achieve various goals, from raising test scores to boosting attendance to improving behavior. Many of these programs are privately funded and targeted at struggling schools and low-income students.

In Texas, students and teachers at schools earn money for every score of 3 or higher on an Advanced Placement exam. In a pilot project this year in two suburban Atlanta high schools, students earned $8 an hour to attend study sessions in math and science.

New York City, with the nation's largest public school system, is also using incentives for educators, mostly in the form of bonuses for principals and teachers. It's all part of an aggressive effort to turn the schools -- 1,456 of them serving 1.1 million students -- around. The New York City Department of Education ventured into pay-for-performance for students beginning this year with two pilot projects developed by Harvard University economist Roland G. Fryer, who is working pro bono as the department's chief equality officer.

Spark, the program that has been so lucrative for Krizya and Ashanti, ties cash rewards to ten citywide math and language assessments that occur during the year. Each fourth grader receives $5 just for finishing the test and up to $20 per test, scaled to the score. Seventh graders earn double, for a maximum of $500.

There are other reward programs as well. For instance, the New York City-based Million Motivation Campaign, which won the prestigious 2008 Cannes Lion Titanium Award, honoring the most "innovative and groundbreaking idea" in advertising and communications, gives kids Samsung U740 cell phones as a carrot -- ironic in a city that has famously and controversially banned cell phones in schools.

Students at seven middle schools received the phones in February, and they collect talk minutes, ringtones, and music downloads by meeting certain benchmarks, such as turning in homework and participating in class. As the program expands, schools will use the phones to communicate with students in a messaging campaign designed to rebrand achievement.

All this, of course, raises unsettling questions: Should we pay kids to behave in ways that we used to expect based on their dedication, discipline, and commitment to future success? Whatever happened to the intrinsic love of learning and the school's responsibility to inspire it?

On the other, more pragmatic, hand, why not try anything to promote academic success? Especially in a country where the average seventeen-year-old African American student reads at the same level as the average thirteen-year-old white student, and in a neighborhood where a couple hundred dollars represents a small fortune and a hard-earned investment for college.

"There's a huge achievement gap," says Debra Wexler, spokesperson for the NYC Department of Education. "Our approach comes from the realization that we have to try new things."

Paying for grades may fall short of the pedagogic ideal, but proponents rightly point out that middle-class parents do it all the time. They buy that Samsung flip phone for their sixth grader when she pulls a B in math up to an A, or they promise a Honda to their high school senior if he aces his AP exams. Learning for its own sake is laudable, but is it realistic?

"Don't come to me and say learning should all be intrinsic," says Virginia Connelly, principal of JHS 123. "I'm in an area where there is no money. There is no allowance. Do I want learning to be an intrinsic value? Absolutely. But you know what? I got students excited about coming to school. College is years away. That's a long time for them to stay at that high-pitched level of motivation. And I'm in competition with the streets. I'm in favor of anything that puts me on a level playing field. Now students can earn some money at school, not just outside by stealing hubcaps and selling them to the chop shop."

Whether tangible incentives do, in fact, spark achievement is an open question. Enthusiasts at JHS 123 have no doubt. "It gives us motivation," says seventh grader Ashley, who has racked up $230 so far. Yuli Gutierrez, Krizya's mom and president of the school's PTA, says, "It really pushes the kids to do better."

Psychology research, however, shows that although cash and prizes may boost compliance in the short term, over time they often decrease students' interest in the tasks for which the kids are being rewarded, and may even decrease interest in activities that don't win them anything.

"Rewards, like punishments, produce only one thing: temporary obedience," explains Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes. "They never help kids think more deeply or become more enthusiastic about learning. I want to believe that at least the goal of these programs is admirable, even if the method is terrible. Sadly, however, schools often use these incentives not to promote meaningful learning but merely to raise scores on bad tests to make the adults look good."

But some school-based research suggests that a well-designed incentive program may benefit students, especially when it is part of broader reform. A 2007 study of the AP incentive program in Texas found that participating schools not only boosted AP enrollment but also reported an approximate 30 percent increase in the number of students scoring 1100 and higher on the SATs and about an 8 percent increase in college matriculation.

The researcher, C. Kirabo Jackson, an assistant professor of labor economics at Cornell University, says he believes the rewards alone weren't directly responsible for a change in student behavior. Instead, they fed into a larger shift at schools, which began devoting money and staff to expand AP programs and to prepare students for more challenging academics. "The culture changed," Jackson says. "The classes were more inclusive. And on the part of students, it was no longer uncool to take these courses."

When New York City education officials originally announced Spark, they set it up so that 40 schools could participate. They received 143 applications, necessitating an expansion of the program. Virginia Connelly saw the program as one more tool in her decade-long drive to remake the culture at JHS 123 and to rescue a failing school. "I wasn't interested in the program as a magic bullet," she notes. "There are no magic bullets."

JHS 123 has 565 students, 64 percent of whom are Hispanic and 35 percent of whom are black. English-language learners make up 17 percent of the student body, and 87 percent of kids are on the free-lunch program. Before Connelly arrived in 1998, parents avoided the place. As a review on -- an online guide to the city's public schools -- said of JHS 123, "Parents were scared off by tales of kids getting their heads dunked in toilets by gang members and students ripping fixtures out of the walls and then hurling them from windows." But Connelly changed things, reducing English and math class sizes to an average of sixteen students, hiring more teachers for core subjects ("I buy teachers -- I don't buy test coordinators," she states), and switching to mastery grading.

A year before Spark started, Connelly instituted a rewards system in which students earn play money, called Zone dollars, and spend it on tickets to school dances or on Yankees caps, stuffed animals, and other trinkets at a school store. Zone charts are posted all over the school, listing behaviors and their corresponding financial rewards. Students who read and show respect for displays in the hallway earn one Zone dollar. If someone drops something, the student who picks it up and returns it gets two Zone dollars.

Students love Zone bucks, but Connelly says their value lies in something deeper. "It's about establishing a relationship in which I honor you, and you honor me," she explains. "It's about setting expectations, constantly communicating those expectations, and reinforcing them."

Raising expectations and reinforcing them -- sometimes with rewards -- yields payoffs. In the third quarter of this year, 230 students made honor roll, up from 180 in 2006-07 and 95 in 2005-06. Although the annual state test scores have not yet been announced, by Connelly's reckoning, the results will see an overall rise of 35 percent in language arts and 50 percent or higher in math.

How much Spark, or any tool, contributed to these outcomes is impossible to say. Connelly believes Spark has the biggest impact at the top and the bottom of the class. "It works really well for kids who can earn a lot," she says. "And it works really well for kids who never get anything. It's great that I can say, 'I can give you bucks for showing up.' If I don't get them in here, I can't teach them."

Fran Smith is a contributing editor for Edutopia.

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