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Paying Students
By David W. Kirkpatrick (February 21, 2008)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

The February 13th edition of Education Week has an article, "Promises of Money Meant to Heighten Student Motivation," about programs in places as diverse as Fulton County, Georgia and New York City that pays students in various ways if they apply themselves to doing better in school.  Coincidentally, at about the same time, February 10th to be exact, the Philadelphia Inquirer did the same.
This is not a totally new concept but the reports note that the trend is growing, so much so that the Inquirer says "financial incentives are becoming a hallmark of antipoverty efforts in New York."  There, not only are students eligible for payments but so are adults.  For example, students in high-poverty high schools can receive up to $1,000 for passing an Advanced Placement (AP) test while low-income adults can be paid for attending parent-teacher conferences or for having a full-time job.
There are those who object to such efforts even though they are not affected by them.  This is indicative of one of the problems of the public schools - their political nature.  If a school district's administration, staff, students, parents and general taxpayers have no problem with a different approach that shows promise why should anyone else be able to cause problems just because the idea offends their sensibilities?
In an earlier commentary on this subject a few years ago I wrote that if those objecting to students being paid  to do what they theoretically should be doing anyway want to be consistent they should object to teachers being paid for what they should be doing.  A few days ago I came across a column written by someone in Ohio who read my comment and said it was the most absurd thing he has seen.  And he's right.  It is absurd.  That was the point.  Although he can read and write, he apparently cannot recognize irony
The fact of the matter is that schools, any schools, heavily stress rewards to motivate students, including financial ones.  Non-monetary ones including giving gold stars at the primary grades for higher achievement, or A's, or honor roll status, at higher levels.  No rewards would mean no motivation and dismal results.
While working on an educational project in Cleveland, Ohio some years ago I came across an unusual reward to motivate students.  Ohio, like other states, provides funds to local districts based on enrollment.  However, Ohio decides the enrollment number by selecting one school day a year as the basis for the count.  In an attempt to boost that figure, Cleveland made that day one of special rewards - celebrating the event with free ice cream and cake, even free pizza, to maximize the number of students coming to school.  The rest of the year school days don't matter much, at least regarding attendance.  With state funds of perhaps thousands of dollars per student, the district's actions are understandable even if the results might be viewed as a form of fraud.
As for direct payments to students, how about scholarships amounting to thousands of dollars for students who do well?  No one objects to that.  Many are awarded at high school graduation.  I graduated from high school more than 60 years ago, in a town in Vermont.  Even then, those of us who were on the honor roll received a certificate from the Pepsi Cola company that was good to defray college tuition.  It was a modest amount but college tuition then was itself modest.  Here was not only a payment to students but it was from a commercial company that received free publicity in the local press each year, and no one objected.
A more recent example is a southern school district that reportedly offered a car (even though used, not new) to a student who had perfect attendance for the year.  In the event more than one student qualified, a lottery would pick the winner.  Apparently no one objected.
A classic contemporary example how students react to payments is in Dallas.  In 1996 29 students in ten high-poverty schools got passing scores on AP exams.. Then payments for passing the tests were introduced.  By 2007 the number of students who did so had soared to 664.
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"The Baltimore incentive program, part of a $6.3 billion initiative to help students pass the state High School "Assessments...is available to more than 5,000 students in the Classes of 2009 and 2010 who have failed at least one of the state exams..."  Sara Neufeld, Baltimore Sun, "Should schools pay students to do well?", p. Q2, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, February 10, 2008

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Copyright 2008 David W. Kirkpatrick
108 Highland Court,
Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633

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