George Lucas Educational Foundation

Greenbacks for Grades: Schools Use Material Rewards as Incentive

Cash and prizes boost student performance -- but is the means worth the ends?
By Fran Smith
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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.

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

George's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

All is well and good with this, and let's suppose that the incentives work wonderfully...then the only question is, who is funding them? We are, largely nationwide, fighting an educational budget shortfall, so is spending more money a workable choice?

Michael Andoscia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a teacher I've made the mistake of using the above incentives in my classroom. I didn't use money, but rather what are called token economies. In essence the students were paid with checks for good grades and behavior. I kept a class store in which students could purchase items of interest. The result? It worked great for about three weeks. Behavior improved and grades increased for most of my students. After about a month, I began to notice that I couldn't get the kids to do anything if there wasn't a token involved. The token became the standard of exchange. A couple of weeks after that, there was almost no difference in grades and behavior than before using the token economy. The kids had, as kids are wont to do, lost interest and moved on to something else. In the meantime I'd managed to squash any desire to learn for the sake of learning. I disregarded the program and swore that I would never use such tactics again. True, learning shouldn't be entirely intrinsic, but the intrinsic nature of learning should be foundational. Using token economies or monetary reward eliminates the intrinsic nature of learning. After sixteen years of teaching and counseling I have come to the conclusion that we need to keep market philosophy out of the classroom.

Connie Spolar's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that incentives can motivate students. Personally, I work harder when there is an incentive that matters to me; however, if students are going to receive a cash incentive for academic performance, I believe that money should be attached to an academic purpose. The money should not be used for purchasing clothing or temporary desires, but should be banked for future college or trade school attendance. Students need to be directed toward setting future goals.

Jerome Ennis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This type stimulus-response stuff referred to as Behaviorism was tried and failed long ago. The children respond positively when they are expecting a reward at the end for doing things that they are supposed to be doing anyway.

This is exactly the technique that is used to train dogs to do tricks, to sniff out drugs, cadavers, explosives, etc. It works very well in training animals to do specific tasks, such as above, to do tricks like roll over, sit, beg, play dead, leave the room, guard, etc. But, do we really want our children to grow up and only "behave appropriately" when rewarded, and do nothing for any intrinsic values, such as just feeling good about being competent, and able to take care of themselves?

Token and Rewards Systems have been used in the past and have failed in the past, because no positive lasting changers occurred. In fact, when the reward was taken away, children regressed quickly, and reacted in negative ways emotionally, ranging from deep depression to uncontrolled anger and aggression. We do not need to spend tax money training children to behave like Pavlov's Dogs and to grow up Demanding Payment just for doing the right thing.

Too many education gimmicks are being used when we should be going back to basics that worked for thousands of years before so many snake oil salesmen and magicians got into the act of education as a way to profit from it. The very idea of turning our schools into quasi-employment programs where children receive cell phones, cash or other things of monetary value is just adding to the already huge problems we have in this country with people who have an engrained sense of entitlement.

Just receiving a free public education system is a huge reward in and of itself. These teachers and others who like these programs, generally do not know how to gain trust and respect from their students and usually these same teachers do not have well-disciplined classrooms. It is easy to be popular as a teacher. You can let the little darlings do what they want to and to make it worse, you can give them candy, money or some other reward for "performing" in a way that makes it appear you have a disciplined or successful classroom.

When you do what is needed, and you establish classroom standards of Respect For Self, Respect for Others, and Respect for Resources, this is a start. Then you let the students know that They, the students who want to learn, are going to be given that opportunity, and that nobody is going to interrupt this process. That they, students, have a right to learn and go to school and be provided a safe and healthy place to learn academically and socially appropriate behaviors. The teacher has a right to teach. Once the students understand this and that, you, the teacher is going to guarantee this in his/her classroom, education begins. You ask, "well what about the students who refuse to cooperate and persist in disrupting the other students or you, the teacher?" Well, that is what you tell them up front. "You have a right to learn and have a learning environment. I have a right and responsibility to provide that for you. We have standards that will be upheld in this classroom. You can do one of three things: (1) sit down, open your books and let's get busy learning. If you have questions after attempting your work and need help and ask for it, I will help you. (2) sit down, do not do your work, but while you do no work, you will not be allowed to disrupt those who are working, and you will not be allowed to sleep in class, or do other things in class except open you books and go to work, or just sit there and do noting while not disrupting other students or trying to keep me from being available to help and teach students who are working. (3) If you do not want to do one or two, there is a door that leads out of this classroom. Then, the uncooperative student understands that he has choices to make and that there are consequences for choices he/she makes. He can either follow the standards and rules of this particular environment and place or he can leave, but that classroom order will be upheld. He/she learns self discipline and appropriate societal behavior or he/she learns that teachers and others in society have a right to maintain order and if you are unwilling to abide by those standards that there will likely be negative consequences. Later, in adulthood, he/she learns that when you lack self discipline and respect for societal standards, rules and laws, that others will control you, and you will not like the way they do it. In the adult world, if you continue to flaunt laws, rules of decent and respectful behavior, and violate the space and progress of others, that society has laws that will have you committed to jails or other institutions. Self Discipline Versus Outside Control is what the students need to be learning in our schools, along with good academic skills so that they can pursue a productive life in the work force, the military, vocational education, technical education or other educational pursuits.
Students want to know that they are safe, and they want a teacher or other authority to be in charge and will do what they say they are going to do. When we tell them that we will insure their safety and health at school, and that we will provide with a learning environment, and that we will teach them things that will be helpful and useful to them now, and more importantly, later in life so that they can make a good life for themselves, we should just basically do what we tell them we are going to do, and that is just Doing Your Job as A Teacher. If, You, As a Teacher, find that you cannot do this, them maybe you should not be a teacher. Being a good teacher is a tough job, but a very rewarding job if you just do the right thing, which is what is needed. You establish trust with your students when you do what you say you are going to do. All too many people have already promised them all these things, and did not follow through, so trust is something that many of these students do not know because they have not experienced it anyplace else.
You would be truly amazed at how easy your job becomes once you establish standards and create this culture in your classroom. After a while, you will have a productive and healthy classroom environment where learning takes place. The students themselves will become a positive peer support group right in your classroom and the troublesome students who come into your classroom will learn pretty quick that the other students take ownership for their classroom and require standards to be upheld, and will let the new student know that he or she is welcome and that they will help them, as will the teacher, but that they do not want to be bullied or disrupted while learning, and that their teacher will maintain this environment if necessary, but that it will be better if you just do your work. If you listen and work, you will learn. The students have already began to Experience Success and this is what builds self esteem, courage, intellect, self discipline and a good healthy sense of self.

This is what schools are supposed to do to begin with.

Lee 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My family cleaned the gas company offices for a living. I started working with them when I was 12 putting in 40 hours a week. If someone had offered me a salary to study instead of cleaning offices, even my parents would have jumped at the offer knowing it might help me out of the destiny they knew was before me.

Gold stars don't do it for people that are scrounging to keep food on the table.

Paying for it is not a problem. Stop subsidizing all the American companies that insource and outsource and disallow them our market. They make the product elsewhere because it is cheaper and sell it back to our country because we can no longer afford to buy quality goods.

We can pay for anything if people are paying American WORKERS, that actually pay taxes. a living wage. And this will probably begin to happen once all the out-of-work college graduates get organized.

Brad's picture
secondary school teacher

The use of a school rewards system involving token economy is positive in my opinion. Apart from increasing intrisic motivation it also contributes to teach students about economy and personal finance.

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