Can We Buy Grades?

By AMI CHOLIA and JAMIE OPPENHEIM

Aylin Gonzales, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at M.S. 302, has spent $234.25 on clothes and shoes in the past eight months from money she earned for performing well on math and English tests in school.

Maria Rivera, also 12, has spent $200 on her favorite stores along Third Avenue in the Bronx, like Dr. J’s, Pretty Girl and Payless. Like Gonzalez, clothes and sneakers top her list of indulgences.

Gonzales and Rivera are both part of a citywide program called Spark, a privately funded program created in 2007 by Harvard University economist Roland Fryer for New York City’s public school system. It offers fourth and seventh-graders a chance to earn money for improving their scores on standardized tests.

Nationwide, as school districts try and come up with ways to reduce the achievement gap, the New York City school system is experimenting with whether rewarding good grades with gift certificates, cell phones, pizza parties and MP3 players will kick start achievement across the board.

The jury is still out on whether these programs work in either the short term or the long term. So far, many students that earn high grades report that they would have earned the grades with or without the cash incentive.

Both Gonzales and Rivera said that while the tests have helped them study harder on their vocabulary and math, that they would have studied anyway. To them, the money is merely an added perk. “I have been doing well in school before this year anyway,” said Gonzales.

The Sparks program is an experiment in itself, and with little information out on its successes — the final report on the program’s effectiveness will only be filed at the end of this academic year — educators are going by studies done on past initiatives. Several studies of similar programs in other cities show improvements in academic performances when reward incentives are given along with enhancement in teaching, but most studies show that incentives alone don’t bring out much of a change within the school environment.

A study conducted by the University of York and Johns Hopkins University in February of 2009 compared incentive-driven programs across the world. It found that while financial incentives for attendance and learning are worth trying in developed countries, there is little evidence indicating that the use of financial incentives to increase learning is effective elsewhere — unless the incentives are combined with improvements in teaching.

Similarly, a Stanford University study of 186 charter schools that utilize incentives showed that rewarding students or their teachers for passing rigorous examinations created positive results, though the results are shown to weaken when teachers are excluded or are not supportive of the idea.

In Spark’s case, coordinators chose 58 schools from over 300 schools that applied, all of which serve low-income and high-minority populations, said Spark spokeswoman Debra Wexler. Fourth-graders earn $5 for completing 10 standardized math and English tests each and can receive up to an additional $20 more per test based on their scores. This allows them to earn a total of $250 a year.

Seventh-graders earn $10 for taking each test and another $40 based on their scores, for a potential total of $500. The money the children earn is placed in bank accounts in the student’s name. While financial literacy classes for students are also supposed to be a component of the program, they have yet to begin.

Gonzales and Rivera average between $30 to $40 per test. And while she may be learning along the way, the real reason Gonzales said she is excited about the last two tests of the school year is because she wants to buy tickets to the Jonas Brothers concert.

The five computerized English and math tests are meant to prepare students for New York state standardized tests, where the questions get progressively harder based on every question the student answers correctly.

“It makes them familiar with the format of computerized testing,” said Mr. Larry Thornton, the special programs coordinator at M.S. 302 in the South Bronx. “That makes it easier when they take the actual tests.”

Funded by Mayor Bloomberg, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Starr Foundation, the Robin Hood Foundation, the Open Society Institute and AIG, Spark has a budget of $6 million, according to the Center of Economic Opportunity. So far, as of 2008, the program has handed out over $500,000 to 8,583 students. With AIG getting government funding, and with non-profits across the board receiving fewer donations, coordinators of the Spark program — like Mr. Thornton — aren’t sure if the program will even survive past its initial run.

“We would love to be a part of this again, but as of now we don’t know if they have enough funding,” he said.

Critics, however, believe that the only way for a child to truly learn is by internal motivation. A study performed by University of Rochester psychologist Edward Deci found that once the incentive was taken away, children did not continue to learn because they weren’t internally motivated to do so. Deci gave two groups of college students building-block puzzles. While one group got a dollar for a successful puzzle, the other group got nothing. Deci said that after the experiment, those getting money were most likely to leave the puzzles. Deci said that cash incentives result only in a temporary change in behavior and that, for actual results to occur, comprehensive school reform was necessary.

Nishant Mehta, who runs the middle school at Alexandria Country Day School in Virginia, said, “This is external motivation — while positive reinforcement is good, external motivators over long periods of time develop poor habits, not lifelong learners.”

Similarly, Barbara Marinak, assistant professor of literacy and reading at Penn State University, who studied incentives to encourage third-graders to read and keep reading for a long period of time, argues that in the case of Spark, the money is a reward that is too far removed from academic achievement. She believes that if the rewards were more directly related to the achievement the incentives would have a more direct affect.

In a study Marinak recently conducted, she found that when she rewarded students for reading with a book they usually continued the activity, yet when she rewarded their behavior with something un-related to the desired activity, such as a puzzle, students would be far less likely to return to reading.

“Perhaps if the reward is closer to the activity you want to encourage that will create motivation,” Marinak said in a phone interview. “Intrinsic motivation comes with things such as choice and not external rewards.”

Thornton, however, believes that the program as an incentive to get his students to study. “Anything that can get these kids to learn to study, I’m all for it,” he said.

When asked if the money was better spent on resources, Thornton argues that schools are given a fairly substantial budget, and since most of the schools in this program are Title 1 schools (identified by the state as a school with a significant number of children living in poverty), they receive additional funds. He believes that the money is better spent on the children because many of their parents are very poor. “We have lots of kids from shelters at our school who are poor. If they can make some money and get things their parents cannot afford to get them, why not?”

Over 250 of the 300 seventh graders at M.S. 302 are part of the Spark program. Last year the school topped the program with the highest amount of money earned.

An average child at M.S. 302 earns about $250. Thornton said that he knew the program was working because the seventh-graders outperformed both the sixth and eight-grade students in the standardized tests last year, which wasn’t the case the year before. And though he admits he cannot directly attribute it to the incentives, he does believe they were a contributing factor.

In the 2007 school year at M.S. 302, 25 percent of the sixth-graders and 14 percent of eight-graders performed at grade level in English — as opposed to 26 percent of seventh-graders. Similarly in math, seventh-graders beat sixth and eight-graders with 42 percent of them performing at grade level, versus 38 percent of the sixth-graders and 41 percent of the eight-graders.

But do students continue to work hard even if the tangible incentives are gone? Neither Rivera nor Gonzales thinks the majority of their classmates would work as hard in the eighth grade once the incentives are gone. But test results for M.S. 302 tell a different story. The seventh-grade class from 2007 did better in eighth grade than they had done the previous year. 31 percent performed at grade level in the eighth grade in English and 58 percent in math (compared to 26 and 42 percent the previous year).

“Their personalities seemed to be formed in the seventh grade so it’s a perfect time to do it,” said Lisa Cullen, a seventh-grade teacher at M.S. 302. “I would ideally like them to study on their own anyway, but that doesn’t happen.”

Cullen said that the incentives help the most in the beginning of the school year because it helps the students get into the groove of the academic year.

“While you can argue whether it’s right or wrong to give students rewards is morally right, but the kids here seem to like the incentives. They seem to be motivated by them,” she said.

M.S. 302 gives its students paper money as an award for good behavior, attendance and grades. The students can then spend that money at the in-house school store on things like iPods, sneakers and smaller trinkets to something as expensive as a PlayStation. Rivera said that she has bought herself an iPod and will make sure she follows all the rules so she can get more stuff.

“We’re reinforcing positive behavior by giving kids what they want,” said Esther Torres, who runs the store. “We also bring kids here who don’t have any paper money to show them what they can earn.”

Jeff Henig, professor of political science and education at Teacher’s College at Columbia University, said that he was reluctant to write-off the incentive program as a waste because he said he knew a lot of affluent parents who paid their children for good grades.

“I think incentives are a pretty standard way of how we organize our society,” Henig said. “I think it makes sense, but incentives include taking kids out to dinner after a good report card. The issue is cash incentives.”

But not everyone is necessarily thrilled with the paying kids for grades system. Yolanda Saldana, a parent coordinator at P.S. 137 in Manhattan, said she is not sure if financial incentives create a lasting interest in learning. Instead, among the 33 fourth-graders participating in the Spark program, Saldana sees incongruous results.

“I hope the incentive is, the better I do the more I learn, and not the better I do the more I earn. Instead, we’re getting a lot of ‘Where’s my check,’” she said. “I don’t think it’s about achievement. I think it’s about the money, which makes it negative.”

Saldana said she would have more faith in the program if financial education piece was a more prominent part. Having someone from Spark speak to the students about investing in their future by creating a financial nest egg could give the program some more backbone, she said, but she hasn’t seen that happen.

While results from the Spark program will come out at the end of this year, schools across the country are continuing to experiment with different methods to narrow the discrepancies between low-income minorities and their more affluent white counterparts. Studies show marginal improvements and educators hold drastically different view points about the incentive programs.

But as long as it doesn’t hurt, Lisa Cullen from M.S. 302 doesn’t understand why we shouldn’t continue doing it.

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