In More Classrooms, It - Literally - Pays to Read

Programs offering cash incentives gain in popularity but stir controversy

At a dingy field house in the shadow of Chicago's Cabrini-Green public housing project, fourth-grader Asia Willingham struggled all last summer to read seven books. Her incentive? Cold cash.

Asia earned $2 for each book she passed a test on, or $14 - enough to buy a colorful jogging suit. "I was happy," she says.

Asia is one of thousands of disadvantaged or underachieving youngsters who have profited, literally, from a controversial reading program known as Earning by Learning.

The program is based on the idea that many kids find reading hard work. Money initially spurs them to do their "job," engaging them until they discover, hopefully, that reading is valuable and fun.

The program has drawn widespread criticism from educators who see ethical and educational problems with paying children to learn. But proponents argue that incentives, from gold stars to the corporate-financed pizza coupons awarded in some schools, have always been a part of the process, just as teachers have always struggled to instill students with a love of learning.

"The universal motivator is money," says Mel Steely, the program's guru, and a history professor at West Georgia College. "You can motivate any kid once you figure out what he wants. We use money because it can motivate a large number of kids at the same time."

Professor Steely launched Earning by Learning in Georgia in 1990 as a tiny pilot project with a colleague, now US House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia. Since then, Mr. Gingrich has stumped the program nonstop as one answer to "a growing crisis of governmental failure."

So far, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in private donations, the program has spread to 17 states. Thousands of students have read for pay in Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, Denver, Seattle, Cleveland, and other cities. The Earning by Learning Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Madison, Wis., sends out materials on creating local programs.

Longevity of Hula-Hoops?

But as it grows in scope and prominence, the concept behind Earning by Learning has drawn criticism from several education experts as an ill-conceived fad.

"I hate to see us waste our resources paying a kid to read a book when we have other programs with proven results," says Robert McClure, senior associate at the National Education Association. "This idea," he says, "will not have long-range pay-offs."

Indeed, even the program's backers admit they lack hard data on whether participating students make sustained improvement in reading performance.

Money is a poor incentive, critics argue, because it is divorced from the intrinsic rewards of classroom learning: winning a teacher's approval, moving to a higher academic level, earning a good grade. "A few dollars will not make [a child] turn to another book. You need a lot more in your arsenal," argues Mr. McClure.

Many teachers and reading experts agree. "Generally, teachers feel that you don't instill the love of learning in a child by paying them to read a book," says Charmayne Marsh, spokeswoman for the 900,000-strong American Federation of Teachers. "Why not give them ribbons or prizes, something that would make them stand out in the classroom?"

Critics also oppose cash rewards on ethical grounds. They say bribing children to read undermines one of society's core traditional values - the belief that learning has merit of its own. "There is a crassness about using money," says Ms. Marsh.

Other experts, however, say the difference between ribbons and dollars is only one of degree.

"My philosophy is that whatever it takes to make kids read, they are better for it, because if they can't read they will be hampered in whatever they do," says Don Adcock, executive director of the 7,000-member American Association of School Librarians in Chicago.

Children are motivated in different ways, stresses Mr. Adcock. A blue ribbon or shiny new pencil may mean more than a few dollars to a suburban child who receives a generous allowance each week. In contrast, he says, an inner-city child from a cash-strapped family might favor a money prize.

From Chicago to Seattle, and Denver to Washington, organizers of Earning by Learning programs share Adcock's view.

"These kids in the inner city can't relate to a pencil, or even a notebook - but to them, $2 is a very concrete symbol," says Kirby Callam, who for the past two years has directed summer reading programs modeled after Earning by Learning in Washington Park on Chicago's South Side. "We attracted a lot of kids just because of the money, and a lot of them could hardly read," he says.

In the program's first year, 25 children read 64 books. This year, 33 children read 144 books. "Money in the kids' pockets is less money the parents have to give to the kids," Mr. Callam adds.

Asia, who earned $14 last summer, was disappointed this year when organizers of the Cabrini-Green summer reading program switched to prizes.

Asia hoped to win a Walkman, but the five books she read were not enough to qualify for any prize. Still, she says she likes reading. Her latest book? "Kaffir Boy," a 300-pager "about what is going on in South Africa."

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