How to keep those kids in class? Pay them.
When students return to Chelsea High School next month, they'll get more than an impeccable attendance record if they make it to class each day: They'll get cash.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Under a new plan, a student who misses not a single day per quarter will receive $25 in an account - redeemable upon graduation. In doing so, the school joins a number of districts throughout the country turning to incentives to boost test scores, GPAs, and student turnout.
Some schools, like Chelsea High, are focused solely on attendance. Officials there maintain that they can't carry out their mission if a student is not in class absorbing the material. Others are doling out gift certificates, coupons, and checks if students earn straight A's or land on the honor roll.
Supporters say such reward systems make good sense. Humans, they say, respond to enticements. A student is no different from a football player working to clinch a championship or a budding broker putting in extra hours for a year-end bonus.
But critics call it bribery and say a capitalist mind-set is invading an institution built around the notion that knowledge itself is the quest. What's more, not all kids can control their attendance, or their achievement, and rewarding only a select few could further undermine the efforts of the rest, they say.
The move is driven in large part by the new emphasis on accountability: Under the No Child Left Behind Act and various state laws also focused on results, increased scrutiny has put pressure on schools to perform.
"American education [today] is far more interested in specific outcomes," says Justin Torres, research director at the Fordham Foundation in Washington. "There are all kinds of outside pressures on schools, and one way they have responded is offering cash bonuses."
The job of enticing students to learn - and thus helping schools perform - was not always so challenging, says Morrie Seigal, the Chelsea School Committee member who masterminded the plan.
Mr. Seigal grew up in Chelsea, a diverse community outside Boston. As a student, he went to school for the education itself. "There is something about paying kids to come to school that is not appealing to me," he says. "It's sad. Kids should want to come to school and succeed on their own. This is their whole life, what they learn in school. That should be incentive enough."
Yet as a Chelsea teacher and administrator for 37 years, he says things have changed. Part of that may be the stresses on modern families, he contends. Others cite the decreasing value of a high school education: Thirty years ago, a high school diploma would land a good manufacturing job. That's not necessarily the case now.
So anything helps, even if that means pushing aside one's philosophy, says Seigal: "I feel we have an obligation to do everything possible to get our kids to come and stay in school."
Experts are unable to point to a definitive body of work proving that such incentives actually rouse a significant amount of students out of bed. One study from the University of Southern California in the mid-1990s reportedly found that eighth-graders performed 13 percent higher on a national math exam when they were offered $1 for every correct answer.