Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Incentivizing Students, Incentivizing Schools

New York City schools will be experimenting with a new student incentive program next year in which students could receive as much as $500 for strong performance on state examinations and good attendance. The program is part of the mayor's antipoverty initiative, which will use privately raised funds to provide similar cash incentives to reduce poverty by encouraging, for example, keeping a full-time job, obtaining health insurance, sending children to school, and attending parent-teacher conferences.

The idea has received mixed reviews. "We are in a capitalist society and people are motivated by money across race and across class, so why not?" said Darwin Davis, the president of the Urban League. On the other hand, Davis also feels the size of the cash awards is rather small:

"I wish $50 could be enough for an insurance payment, but that’s not going to be the case," he said, wondering aloud how many tests students would need to pass to buy the latest video game.
Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute doesn't place much confidence in the power of the cash prizes to entice students into working hard, and says the program is an "insult to every hard-working parent." Other educators claim that students should love learning for its own sake, not for material rewards.

Incentives are certainly not new to education. Schools in Chelsea, MA and Dallas, TX have also offered cash to students for attendance or books read, and plenty of elementary school teachers through the years have offered their students a pizza party or the chance to delve into a "treasure chest" for good behavior. One could argue that students should pursue good behavior, just as learning, for its own sake, but the fact of the matter is that many students need an extra nudge in the right direction--and the nudge doesn't have to be all that big. If stickers can do wonders for motivating good behavior, I imagine a little cash could encourage some to work a little harder toward an upcoming test or perfect attendance.

I wonder, though, if the naysayers of the program realize that this "ploy" is precisely the same tactic the Federal government uses to encourage educational reform. Due to the tenth amendment, educational responsibility falls under the purview of the States, so the Federal government has no direct authority over any educational program. Since politicians at the Federal level would, nevertheless, like to see certain improvements in the quality of our nation's educational systems, they institute incentive programs: a small financial grant in exchange for a certain educational agenda, such as improving educational opportunity for poor students or increasing the available data about school performance. Just as $50 isn't much for a health insurance premium, the 7% of educational expenditures that the Federal government provides isn't intended to cover anything close to the bulk of the cost of education. Rather, the grants' goal is to encourage certain behaviors; and as it turns out, the carrot is just a little too big for States to give up, as we have seen, for example, in Utah's difficulty in passing legislation that would disqualify the state from certain Federal programs.

Federal incentives for schools and local incentives for students are not the end-all of educational reform, but they aren't intended to be. Rather, they must be accompanied by more-comprehensive reforms on the state and school levels to achieve true, lasting progress toward equity of educational opportunity. Since the New York incentive program won't detract from public monies for education, I support the initiative: Give it a try, monitor its effects, and if it works, expand. If not, try something else--but keep the entrepreneurial attitude, because entrepreneurship fosters the kind of creativity need to develop novel strategies that work.

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