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Will Students Work Harder for Cash?

For many students, getting an education is in itself a goal that motivates them to work hard, pass exams and move on to higher levels. But that does not seem to be enough to motivate all students to learn. So, as Faiza Elmasry reports, a number of U.S. school districts are experimenting with pilot programs that offer students cash awards in exchange for improved attendance and academic performance.

E arn and Learn is the name of the program in Atlanta, Georgia, and that's what students at two schools there are doing. Susan Hale, of the Fulton County School System, says 20 students at each school were chosen to participate in the 15-week-long program.

"These students were chosen because they either were failing or about to fail their classes in math and science," she says.

Each group of 10 students meets twice a week for an after-school tutoring class. Not only are the sessions free, students who attend it are paid $8 an hour.

Hale says students get additional monetary incentives for improved grades. Middle school students who raise their grades to a B or better get a $75 bonus. High school students can get a $125 bonus.

"We hope that the students will become more motivated, feel more energized about school in general, which we hope will translate into better attendance, better grades and better performance," Hale says.

In Baltimore, Maryland, 33 high school students are participating in a similar incentive program that runs through June of next year. These students are paid for their growth in performance, not for their grades, according to Tisha Edwards of the Baltimore City Public School system.

"They get assessed when they enter the program," she says. "Students are given an incentive based on meeting certain benchmarks. So, if they demonstrate five percent growth, they receive $25. If they achieve 15 percent growth, they receive $35. If they experience 20 percent growth, they receive $50. So, a student can receive a total of $110."

Students also receive money to be peer tutors, Edwards says. "So the children who have been successful can tutor children who have not been successful."

Edwards says cash incentives are an innovative way to not only motivate students to work harder in school, but also to focus on long-term goals in life.

"Baltimore City has a really high concentration of poverty," she says. "A lot of our children are having to choose between working and going to school." She hopes the program will "help them make the right choice, which is to get an education."

Edwards says the program has gotten mixed reviews so far.

"There are some people who understand that as a community we can't afford to have 5000 children without high school diplomas," she says. "So anything we do can do to help them be successful, they support that."

But others have said they don't think cash incentives are the appropriate way to motivate students. Robert Schaeffer, spokesman for the National Center for Fair and Open testing is among them. "Bribing kids to boost their test scores doesn't work in the long run," he says. "It's like a steroid that might enhance performance over the short term, but in the long term, the performance gains are minimal and sometimes negative."

Scheaffer explains, "Paying kids for performance creates a belief that they should always be paid. What happens when they move on to classes where there are not bribes offered or move on to college or life, where there are not immediate financial rewards? They are not prepared for that."

But sometimes, those immediate financial rewards are necessary, says Josh Angrist, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"There is a sense in which educators would like to believe that school is its own reward," he says. "And for some people school is its own reward, but clearly for many people school is not enough of a reward because they are not doing well, or they are dropping out, or they are not applying themselves to their studies in a way which generates any real learning. So, we could make it more attractive."

Over the last 7 years, Angrist participated in two studies on the effects of cash incentive programs in Israel and Canada.

The results, he says indicate "that it is possible to motivate students to study more and to do better in school by offering them some kind of monetary incentive." Unfortunately, Angrist says, only girls were motivated. "The boys essentially remained unmoved by the opportunity to make some money by getting their grades up."

Angrist says it is still too early to support or condemn the cash incentives for academic achievement approach. As a researcher, he adds, he would like to see the results of the current experimental programs before passing judgment on the whole idea.