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.
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.
For Michael Grady, a professor of educational studies at St. Louis University, anecdotal evidence is enough to convince him that financial incentives can work. Money will not solve all truancy, of course, but he says a $50 check per week for students with perfect attendance has made a difference at an Illinois charter school. He is a consultant to the school, which is made up of students kicked out of other places. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the location of the charter school.]
In some cases, though, it has backfired. Dr. Grady says that students have used the money to buy drugs, and some have been beaten by parents - dependent on the cash - for skipping school. But "hard-core kids showed up at school to do some work," he says. "Fifty dollars is a heck of a lot of money for a lot of these kids. It does make a difference in their lives."
Many experts do not see the issue in black or white. Mr. Torres says he would find fault with wealthier communities handing out cash to students for merely showing up. But at the KIPP schools, a charter program in low-income communities across the country, he says a variety of incentives have given students the chance to take field trips to Washington or join after-school clubs.
"I think that is the key," he says, "incentives that can also be tied back to the educational mission."
Garrett Duncan, an associate professor of education at Washington University in St. Louis, says many incentive programs are launched in poor rural and urban communities, and could have unintended consequences. They reinforce "the stereotypes that certain communities do not value education like others; that the value is in the dollar sign," he says.
At Chelsea High School, where attendance levels hover around 90 percent, officials say that making graduation a requirement to collect the money makes it an academic endeavor - even if the money can be used however students wish.
Gerald McCue, executive director for administration and finance for Chelsea Public Schools, says the school needed to overhaul its attendance system, which he says was in some cases punitive and counterproductive: Students failed courses for five or more unexcused absences, and those students with five absences often had no motivation to attend the rest of the course.
But financial incentives can be counterproductive, too, says Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in New York. Aside from unwanted public-health consequences - sick children showing up at school - once a day is missed and a record tainted, the incentive is no longer relevant.
"Kids have been going to school for centuries without needing to be paid for it," Professor Ryan notes.
While some my balk at the idea of paying cash to teenagers - especially when skipping school is technically a punishable offense - Seigal maintains that it is really no different from offering a scholarship to the most diligent students. And unlike the permanence of an attendance record, the program is not inflexible, says Mr. McCue. "If it works and improves attendance, terrific," he says. "If not, we terminate it and come up with something else."