Success, School, and Cash

October 23, 2008 | | Comments Off on Success, School, and Cash

Success is not an objective term. To some people, the mark of success is money, but to others success is not defined by material things.  Many cities have come up with programs in which students are given cash for their academic successes. These incentive programs have been praised for encouraging students to do well in school, and criticized for misplacing the value of education.

Capital Gains is a new program in Washington D.C., which provides cash incentives to students who do well in school (D.C. Tries Cash as a Motivator In School).  When the program begins in October, students will receive $2 for every point they earn through the program.  They will be able to for earn up to $100 per monthgood grades, attending class, and turning in assignments.  SunTrust Bank will establish savings accounts for the students and provide them with money management training (Capital Gains Program Promises Cash for DC Students).

The D.C. Capital Gains Program is funded by the D.C. school system and Harvard’s American Inequity Lab.  It will be run by economist, Roland Fryer Jr. D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty supports the program because he believes giving money directly to the students is a positive alternative to spending a lot of money on the school system itself, as the city has previously done. It is too early to tell whether the D.C. initiative will be a success, but a Texas program similar to the one being implemented in D.C was analyzed, and the results were positive.  The number of students in the Texas program with high SAT scores increased 30% and the percentage of children attending college increased 8%.

The D.C. School Chancellor defended the Capital Gains Program by stating that there are a lot of incentives for D.C. kids to do the wrong thing, and they need incentives to do the right thing to balance that out.  Critics of the program say that it sends students the wrong message by rewarding achievement with money.  The statistics for D.C. school children do support the Chancellor’s and Mayor Fenty’s view that something has got to change in D.C. public schools. Only 8% of middle school students are proficient in math and 12% are proficient in English.

Many other cities are beginning programs in which students get paid for making good grades.  The city of Baltimore plans to give up to $110 per high school student to improve their scores on state exams.  In New York City, students could earn up to $500 for improving scores on English and math tests. In Atlanta, a similar program will pay students $8 an hour for attending a fifteen week after school study program. Virginia joined the Exxon/Mobile funded program which pays students $100 for each AP exam they pass.

Critics of cash incentive programs insist that rewarding students with money destroys their motivation to do well in school when they are not getting paid to do so. Thomas Toch, of the Education Sector, says that most students in AP classes are internally motivated by the prospect of earning college credits for passing AP tests, and a cash reward for doing so is not more motivating than the internal desire which  they already possess. Proponent of cash incentive programs, Principal Sam Scavella, of a Georgia high school, stated that the programs teach students that if they do well in school they will be able to afford a lifestyle that will pay well.

Rewards are not all bad, there are some guidelines to making the most out of using rewards to get students to do well.  Teacher praise can go a long way. If praise alone is effective, then teachers should not resort to rewarding students with material things.  There is a difference between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards to reinforce learning. Intrinsic rewards are the natural ramifications of behavior, such as a feeling of success when a child makes a good grade.  Extrinsic rewards are considered harmful because they are from an outside authority. Extrinsic rewards are helpful in maintaining classroom discipline, but they may cause students to be less motivated to perform when there is no reward.  One researcher, Alyce Dickinson, found that extrinsic rewards are not inherently damaging to student motivation.

Using rewards as incentives for a student to perform is not a good idea and continuing to reward a student once he or she has mastered a task is overkill.  Education scholar, Alfie Kohn classifies rewards for performance in school as a tool for controlling people, and says that rewards for learning make children only want to do well in order to receive the reward. Kohn also notes that rewards may change behavior and enhance performance, but it is only temporary. It does not commit students to wanting to learn in the future.

Iowa has an incentive program which pays the parents instead of the students. The program is called Educating Brain Trust and it runs seminars which teach parents how to help their children with school work, and how to work with their children’s teachers. The program pays parents $25 for attending these seminars, and provides them with food and babysitting services.

In response to the critics that disagree with paying parents to be involved in their children’s academic lives, Superintendent Nancy Sebring says that many parents are prevented from helping their children with academics due to a lack transportation and free time, due to heavy work schedules.  Superintendent Sebring justifies paying the parents for their time by stating that poverty gets in the way of  parental involvement, so the program eases the financial burden by providing a $25 stipend for parents attending seminars.
Economist, Roland Fryer, came up with the Capital Gains Program now adopted  by the District, when he was trying to decide how to “make school tangible for disadvantaged kids with few successful role models”. Fryer believes that children need short term rewards, like money, to keep them motivated for school because they are not wise enough to see their reward will come in the future. This is especially true because they probably have not seen anyone reach success through school.

Fryer’s viewpoint shortchanges the wisdom of children and assumes that they only value money. Rewarding children with money may not only lead them to seek out illegal financially rewarding activities, but also discourage them from pursuing activities that do not carry a significant monetary reward.  Many activities and careers which require great skill and knowledge are not financially rewarding, such as many artistic fields.

I believe that students should be able to define success for themselves. Using money to get children to perform in school misplaces the value of education. The value is not so much the external benefits, such as being able to get a high paying job. The true value of education has nothing to do with money or any other material possessions. Education is valuable mostly because it allows us to better appreciate, understand, and contribute to the world in which we live.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user DeHoll.

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