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Education is one of those values that just about everyone agrees is a good thing. But how do you keep kids interested in school? Do you make classes more interesting and hire good teachers? Draw up stricter standards to objectively measure “accomplishment” and hold students and teachers accountable for meeting them? How about just paying off the kids that meet your standards, regardless of what those standards might be?
France is the latest country to experiment with providing cash incentives to underachieving students. And according to an article in Time magazine, this “capitalistic and non-egalitarian” idea has not sat well in a country where the public school system “embodies republican values that go back to the French Revolution.”
The program is simple: Students at three vocational high schools in the suburbs of Paris will receive “reward payments” up to $15,000 per year for attendance and reaching “performance targets agreed upon by their teachers.” These aren’t straight cash payments: They can only be redeemed for “school-related projects” such as “a class trip abroad to improve foreign language skills, computer equipment for the classroom or driving lessons to obtain a license.”
Sounds like pretty good stuff. But it does raise the question: Wouldn’t kids be motivated to do better in school if attending school already included the opportunity to study abroad, work on decent computer equipment, or obtain a driver’s license? And should one’s opportunity to do so be limited by fellow students’ attendance records and achievement? Couldn’t one spend the same amount of money to put these programs in place and offer the spots to students who wish to participate and meet the entrance criteria? Doesn’t the existence of “special” programs imply that the rest of school is kind of a drag?
Part of the reason vocational students are less motivated, according to Philippe Vrand, president of the Parents of Public Students Group, is because being sent to a vocational school in the first place implies to some students that they have already failed to achieve a place in a more traditional academic program; once there, many end up taking courses they aren’t interested in because they can’t find a slot in programs they do want. “We should spend this money making sure vocational students who wanted to learn cooking can get into these programs rather than being shunted into car repair because there was no room left,” he told Time. “Instead, students are being paid to compensate for [their] boredom.”
Considering that the courses many vocational students take will determine their future profession, it seems pretty crucial that they have the option to choose what that profession will be. But the French program is just another example of a worldwide trend of rewarding — some might say “bribing” — students to do well in school. And it makes one wonder: If you have to bribe the students, doesn’t it already imply that the school system and parents — people otherwise known as “adults” — aren’t doing enough to keep them interested and focused on their own talents and class work?
The programs are especially catching on here in the United States, and in many cases, the rewards are even more tenuously connected to academic achievement. An article published in USA Today last September rounded up some of the more popular programs, almost all of which involved direct cash incentives and/or fancy consumer items: Fourth- and seventh-graders in New York City can earn up to $500 for improving their scores on state exams; Baltimore offered $110 to students improving their scores; Atlanta paid students $8 an hour to attend an after-school program (the minimum wage was $5.84 an hour); students in seven states — Arkansas, Alabama, Connecticut, Kentucky, Virginia and Washington — could earn up to $100 for each passing grade on an Advanced Placement exam through a program funded by Exxon-Mobil; and Sam Scavella, a principal in Macon, Ga., offered iPods, movie tickets, dinner for two, and a chance to win a 26-inch television to students who attend Saturday study sessions.
These programs are popular, in part, because some of them seem to work. The Exxon-Mobil program was modeled on a program adopted in Dallas during the 1995-96 school year, now statewide in Texas, that was linked to a 30 percent improvement in high SAT and ACT scores and an 8 percent rise in college-bound students. Last June, the New York Post reported that two-thirds of the 59 schools participating in the New York City program saw their scores go up from previous years — some as high as 40 percentage points.
The idea, of course, is to link school achievement to future earnings to kids who educators seem to think might not otherwise make the connection. Scavella, the Georgia principal offering iPods and big-screen TVs, is explicit about this. “If you do well in school, then you can afford a lifestyle that will pay you well,” he told USA Today. And Rose Marie Mills, a principal at a New York City school where 90 percent of the students are below the poverty level, told the Post, “When they get the checks, there’s that competiveness — ‘Oh, I’m going to get more money than you next time’ — so it’s something that excites them.”
Sure, going to college is one of the surest ways to boost one’s lifetime earnings. And kids who aren’t necessarily having that message reinforced by their parents might react well to a little external motivation. But the biggest gap between students at high-performing schools and underperforming schools is much larger than $100, $500 or a big-screen TV. In affluent school districts, academic performance is the competitive battlefield: Taking AP classes means college credit; students compete with their peers for higher SAT scores; and the reward is a place in a competitive school. Replicating that kind of environment costs an awful lot more than an iPod.
In bribing kids to do well in school, educators are following a road well trod by generations of frustrated parents. While I don’t begrudge kids a few hundred-dollar checks, I have to say that next to having teachers that will nurture and encourage, say, one kid’s obsession with writing, or teach another to build a rocket for a science fair, or help another to get a scholarship to study abroad, it seems pretty paltry.
Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.More Amy Benfer.