FEW high schoolers have their own American Express cards, but attending school has its privileges for some students.
At about 1,500 schools nationwide, students who come to classes regularly or improve their grades receive color-coded identification cards entitling them to special rewards.
"We're taking strategies that successful companies use and applying them to the schoolhouse," says Ross Larson, director of the nonprofit Renaissance Education Foundation in Minneapolis.
In 1988, the foundation began holding conferences to spread its concept of a reward-for-performance program to schools throughout the United States.
Students qualify for different levels of incentives, depending on their grade-point average or attendance record.
Some examples of rewards include discounts at local stores and fast-food restaurants, free tickets to school events, and reserved parking on campus. Students who earn a "Gold Card" can even gain exemptions from a final exam or two.
Critics say students shouldn't need additional incentives to attend school or perform well academically.
"It's a pretty sad day if we have to bribe the kids to learn what they ought to learn," says Ted Sizer, a school-reform expert and professor of education at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "It's dealing with a symptom, not the problem."
But proponents of the program say that incentives produce results in the battle to combat high dropout rates and low grades. "The ends justify the means," they argue.
The foundation has held 73 conferences in three years, and schools in all 50 states are now using the Renaissance program. "We teach them the basic concept and then we allow them to take ownership by building their own program and putting whatever clothes they might want on that concept," Mr. Larson says.
Local businesses fund the program and provide many of the rewards and prizes. "This is a way for businesses to help in a positive way, without meddling in curriculum," Larson says.
A monthly newsletter from the foundation helps the schools share ideas. About 12,000 copies go out each month.
The Renaissance program "can be as different from A to Z depending on the school and the community," Larson says. "Our smallest school has 28 kids in the graduating class and hasn't got a business within 20 miles. And we've got inner-city schools that have a whole different set of parameters."
Although the program varies from school to school, most schools use a card system of some sort and provide various privileges.
`WE encourage schools to make that card system available for all students so that it's not elitist, not just for kids with A's and B's but [also] for kids who are improving their grades," Larson says.
For example, one school had 38 percent of its students getting F's, Larson says. Since the main problems were daily attendance and failing grades, administrators created a card for students with no F's on their report cards. Now, only 4 percent of students receive failing grades, and the dropout rate is down 30 percent, according to Larson.
Silver Lake Regional High School in Kingston, Mass., introduced the Renaissance program three years ago. "We are seeing some students succeed who have never succeeded before," says Principal John McEwan.
As part of his PhD dissertation, Mr. McEwan studied the results of the Renaissance program at Silver Lake. "We wanted to start asking: Does it work or does it just feel good? What we're finding is that it does work," he says. He credits the program with reducing the dropout rate from 4 percent to about 1 percent and raising the number of students on the honor roll - all A's and B's - from 12 percent to 20 percent.
About 50 businesses in the community participate in the Silver Lake Renaissance program. Students on the honor roll have special cards entitling them to discounts at the local McDonald's, donut shop, and record store, for example.
Honor-roll students also gain free admission to sports events and other activities.
Earl LaChance, a senior at Silver Lake, felt the impact of not making honor roll this term when he went to watch school sports. "I messed up in physics," he says, "and all my friends made fun of me waiting in line to pay while they all walked right through."
"Initially, kids thought they'd be geeks when they brought out their cards," says Donna Brown, a guidance counselor at Silver Lake. "Now, it's a status symbol."
Steve Blette, another senior at Silver Lake, says the card is "sort of like a badge of pride."
The Renaissance program "gives a whole new dimension to school," Earl says. "It's another little thing that helps you roll over and get your clothes on in the morning. It breaks up the monotony of school."
Students who don't make the honor roll can receive prizes through perfect attendance or improved grades. A VIP (Very Improved Person) card is given to all students who raise their grade-point averages by 0.3.
Despite some initial reservations, most teachers at Silver Lake think the Renaissance program is worthwhile. "It's like working for Ford," Mrs. Brown says. "If you sell the most cars, you go to the Caribbean."
But at least one teacher disapproves of the Renaissance concept. "My concern is that we're putting too much emphasis on the rewards that can come from learning, rather than the learning itself," says Peter Trenouth, an English teacher at Silver Lake.
Mr. Trenouth understands the frustration that has led educators to look toward incentive programs to motivate students.
"It's difficult for teachers and administrators to really address the serious problems of how well students are learning," he says. "We find ourselves grasping at almost anything to try to stimulate a better performance from them."
But, he maintains, equating academic accomplishment with material success is not the answer.
His prescription for the problem is to "improve the quality of the service that we give kids so that learning is not merely a drudgery that they put up with for the sake of reward."
Principal McEwan acknowledges that it's difficult to keep up with students' expectations for rewards. "After you've used incentives for a while, they become taken for granted," he says. "It's the same old thing and it's no longer an incentive."