When the mayor of a Spanish town last week proposed paying students to study as a way to stem the drop-out tide, many observers were left scratching their heads. Bribing students? That can't be a good idea.
But maybe it can. In the United States, a number of publicly and privately funded programs are rewarding students for attendance, studying and scoring well on standardized tests.
Some schools in Atlanta are paying kids $8 (U.S.) an hour to study for up to four hours a week. At high-poverty schools in Texas, students who score well on exams for college credits can earn $100 to $500 a test. And in Baltimore, students at some schools can earn up to $80 a year for good attendance - then invest their cash in stocks that they can sell when they graduate. Most of these programs have been started in the past year.
"These ideas are very new," says C. Kirabo Jackson, an assistant professor of labour economics at New York's Cornell University who studies the effects of financial incentives on students. "As soon as they start getting traction, we're going to see a lot more coming out about it."
At first blush, some of these programs seem to work. Dr. Jackson recently examined the Texas program, which has been running since the late 1990s.He was concerned that paying students for good grades on the so-called Advanced Placement tests might encourage students to take the courses just for the money. Instead, he found that enrolment rose in all AP classes - rigorous, college-level courses that put students in good standing for applying to college - and not just in the classes that involved cash rewards. SAT scores also rose, and there was an 8-per-cent increase in the number of students going to college after graduation.
While the cash was key, the program also seemed to shine a spotlight on the path to college, Dr. Jackson says. "It makes it much more salient to the students what the private benefits of these courses are."
The programs and their long-term effects need more study, he says, before drawing definitive conclusions. In the meantime, he and colleagues in the burgeoning academic field are teaming up with education departments across the United States to help them design more effective programs. Dr. Jackson is working on a New York program that will give kids $500 to $1,000 for good grades on the AP tests.
In Canada, the idea of paying students is not a popular one.
"I've never heard it surface seriously in Canada," education expert Michael Fullan says.
There are programs outside the education system that offer some financial help, mostly in the form of removing financial barriers to educational success.
The non-profit, high-school tutoring and mentoring program Pathways to Education offers such help as free public transit fare to and from school for underprivileged kids. Started in Toronto's Regent Park seven years ago and now expanded to five cities across Canada, Pathways also offers up to $4,000 earmarked for postsecondary studies to students who stay in the program throughout high school.
But for strictly cash-for-grades programs to work, experts say, they have to involve more than mere money changing hands. A personal connection to an adult who could mentor a student is crucial, says Dr. Fullan, a professor of policy studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. It's also important to tie financial rewards into a more meaningful learning experience, he says. In other words, if school or homework is boring and uninspiring, educators should think about how to change it rather that just pay kids to endure it.
Otherwise, "it's like paying someone to take out the garbage," Dr. Fullan says.
Still, for very high-risk kids, paying them to stay in school may be a valid a way to re-engage them in "the market economy of their community," says Michael Ungar, a professor of social work at Halifax's Dalhousie University who studies at-risk youth. "If this gets you back into school, it's a small price to pay," when compared with the financial and social costs of prison, welfare and teenage pregnancies, he says.
Some experts say that financial incentives for poor kids merely mimic the kinds of incentives middle- and upper-class kids already routinely enjoy: an allowance increase for getting As or a Nintendo Wii for getting into university. While most parenting experts are opposed to the use of financial incentives in the home, those who study the effects in the education system say it's worth a try.
"It's lower-income students who may not have these incentives," Dr. Jackson says. "By putting them in there, you may be bringing them up to equality or parity in some sense."
Most experts discourage parents from using cash as a carrot at home. Vancouver author and parenting expert Kelly Nault-Matzen offers a few alternatives to encourage children to do their homework.
Let your children experience poor grades. When report cards come out, sit down with them and ask how they feel about their grades. Discuss which areas they are proud of and which they want to improve. Sometimes going to summer school and missing out on summer fun is a big motivator to do better next time.
Pay attention to the subjects they are interested in. Ask them about their interests, hobbies and projects. Support them in their activities any way you can. Far too many young adults are playing "pin the tale on the donkey" when it comes to their future - blindly going through the motions of getting a diploma or degree with no clue as to what brings them joy.
Show up for your children and watch your children show up more. Go to the parent-teacher interviews, concerts and games to demonstrate your interest and support. At parent-teacher interviews, even if your children are barely eking out a passing grade, don't leave until you've asked the teachers what they see are your children's greatest strengths and add these to your own list.
Stop reminding them about homework. In order for your children to do well in school over the long term, they need to care about their homework and responsibilities more than you do.