Schools use cash as an incentive to boost attendance and scores
Baltimore schools teach students about the stock market and let them keep money from their portfolios. Are cash rewards bribery or a creative way to inspire students?
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Cash incentives often divide parents, too. Dennis Moulden, a former PTA official in Baltimore, worries about appearances. "I would prefer that it was grant money as opposed to tax dollars so it doesn't look like the [school] system is trying to pay these kids off," he says.Skip to next paragraph
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But Mr. Moulden also notes that middle- and upper-class parents have offered their kids monetary incentives for years – something not always available to poor families. "For a lot of these kids, parents don't have the resources," he says. "The [school officials] are supplanting the parents in that respect. It's kind of like an educational welfare system."
Underneath all this looms another question: Do incentives really work? One recent study by a Cornell University professor, who examined a Texas program that paid students in poorer districts for passing Advanced Placement tests, found that the rewards did help increase participation in the AP classes and improved scores. But the author has cautioned that other factors might have contributed to the improvements.
At the middle school, Burnett presses on with a discussion about the stock market and economy. He removes his suit jacket and rolls up his sleeves. The class stirs. One girl mentions her mom has stopped buying juice because it's too expensive. Other students point out high gas prices. Another boy puts up his hand and explains: "I was going to the store and I left the TV on and my mother started yelling that I didn't pay any bills."
The comment draws laughter, but Burnett links it back to the high cost of energy and asks how that might affect the stock market. After a few minutes, he tries a different tack.
"How many of you are buying video games?" he asks. He veers the conversation toward the performance of Sony and Microsoft stock. Then he segues into financial strategy. "We invest in companies that we know are going to be around for the long haul, so it's not like a game of Monopoly – you can't go two spaces and end up living on Park Place," he says.
So far, the class seems to be working. The students are absorbed, not because of any dividends they might get from their portfolios but because of the window into capitalism. "I don't really need money to come to school," says Asia. "I like coming to school because I want an education."
Classmate Nakia Lyna concurs. "Some adults think that we don't like coming to school, that we don't like learning," she says. "But in this class, we have fun learning about money."
Nakia, in fact, believes paying students may just confuse them. "If you bribe them with money, they're going to have a reason to come just for the money," she says. "They're not thinking about what they're going to learn in social studies the next morning or in computer class. They're going to think about how much money they're going to get and when they're going to spend it at the store."