As a new academic year begins, hundreds of schools around the country are experimenting with programs that offer students pay for performance. Even young children can earn cash for reading books, showing up for study hall, improving test scores and meeting other goals.
Many teachers are reporting good results, saying students work harder when given immediate incentives such as money or, in some cases, prizes such as MP3 players and cell phones loaded with free minutes. Various pilot programs have been undertaken in New York, Washington, Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore, Dallas and elsewhere.
The programs can be fairly lucrative for children. In a Washington, D.C., pilot program, for example, students can earn as much as $100 every two weeks. Funds for such programs typically come from taxpayers, foundation grants or some mix of private and public money. The programs generally aim to motivate poorer children to improve classroom attendance and performance.
But critics say school administrators should not be turning the schoolhouse into a workplace. Rather than motivate students, they charge, the reward programs cheapen the educational experience by using "bribes" to win temporary obedience.
Psychological studies going back as far as the early 1970s have found that rewards programs may produce less engaged students. These studies suggest that, instead of developing an intrinsic love of learning, young people are being trained to do the minimum amount needed to get the reward, and then they lose interest.
"I think it's really clear," said Barbara Marinak, an assistant professor of education at Pennsylvania State University. Decades of research prove "any type of 'extrinsic' reward, by and large, undermines motivation," she said.
Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, said research confirms that "the bigger the reward, the more damage it does" by encouraging students to focus on the goodies, not the learning. "The more you use cell phones, T-shirts, money or whatever, the more you undermine motivation for becoming engaged and prolific learners," he said.
Still, some educators are determined to keep experimenting to find ways to make incentives work well. The Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University, known as EdLabs, is systematically evaluating programs to see whether some strategies, such as using direct deposit of student checks into college savings accounts, can help boost long-term motivation. The program promises to continue to "embrace untested, even heretical ideas" to find new ways to motivate students.