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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 12/ 9/2009

Paying kids to attend school is not always a bad idea

By Valerie Strauss

The other night I heard something on TV that prompted me to reconsider my opposition to paying kids for school attendance and high grades--at least some kids in some places.

Harlem Children’s Zone maestro Geoffrey Canada was talking to correspondent Anderson Cooper on CBS’ “60 Minutes” about his pioneering effort in New York to provide health and educational services to more than 17,000 children in a 97-city block area in Harlem and make sure they all get a college education.

In Canada’s world view, kids can’t do well in school if they are hungry or sick, so his organization offers a variety of services to families so that the kids can concentrate on school.

When talking about the Promise Academy Charter Schools that he runs in the zone, the issue was raised of rewarding students for showing up to class and doing well. High school students can earn up to $120 a month and younger kids earn trips to places such as France.

This goes along with a tough program that includes Saturday school, a summer vacation that lasts only three weeks, and afterschool programs that are offered not only to children in Promise academies but to zone children in regular public schools as well.
Said Cooper to Canada: “Aren’t you essentially bribing them?”

Canada laughed and responded, “I love to bribe kids.... People say, ‘Well Geoff, look, don’t you want kids to do it for the intrinsic value?’ Sure, I’d love them to do it for the intrinsic value. And until then I’d love them to do it for money. I just want them to do it.”

And with that came crashing down my solid opposition to paying kids for anything to do with school. It is a practice in a number of urban school districts, where kids don’t often get the same kind of massaging that kids in middle- and high-income families do for their school success.

Most kids in middle- and high-income families have a support structure that rewards them, if not with cash payments (though some of them get that, too), by other means.
“Oh, we are so proud of you, we’re all going to celebrate your report card with a dinner out,” a parent might say.

Children in these families, too, also are motivated to do well in school by their family and their peers, something many children in troubled neighborhoods don’t necessarily get.

So getting kids who live in the zone to school and offering them a reason to learn to like learning makes sense.

The “doing it for the intrinsic value” can come later--and apparently does for Canada’s kids. Every child who graduates from the Promise academies goes to college and 90 percent of the kids who attend public schools in the zone and Canada’s after-school programs go on to college as well.

The incentives for the kids in the zone are only one piece in a very large educational, social and health program that creates the conditions for them to actually succeed. As such, they make some sense. Absent the extensive wrap-around programs, they don't.

Now I know many people think this is wrong, paternalistic, wacky, and even worse. So tell me why I'm wrong.

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By Valerie Strauss  | December 9, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Tags:  Harlem Children's Zone, school reform  
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That transition from extrinsic to intrinsic is by no means certain - lots of studies show that when the reward goes away, motivation can plummet.

The reason Canada can get away with extrinsic rewards is that he uses them as one piece in a whole constellation of interventions and resources that build community and an overall sense of trust. That's very different from offering ONLY money as a quick fix in an otherwise barren curricular wasteland. It's like dragging a horse to an empty water trough - you might get him in the door but he's not going to be any less thirsty, and he's not going to want to stick around.

Finally, I don't think research backs up long-term extrinsic reward systems for younger kids - they just can't keep a reward that's in the distant future in mind enough for it to influence their behavior. Short term rewards work much better day-to-day. So if you want to pay young kids, you better pay them every day.

Posted by: kc0896 | December 9, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

When I was in school, teachers consistently told us that school was our job, just as whatever our parents (mostly fathers in those days) did was their job, and we should try to do it well.

Let's see--You work at a non-paying job, sometimes for very poor bosses or with substandard material or in substandard workplaces, sometimes doing something you hate or are not good at, in a situation where you have no chance to find a more favorable job or workplace (or even dream about it). If you do this for 17 years (K-college), at the end of that time, you finally will be able to look for another job that pays, and possibly you will be paid a bit more than someone who did not work all 17 years.

I notice that all the adults who oppose students getting paid for attending school never seem to want to do their work for free.

(Besides, if we paid students by the hour, the laws on overtime would settle the dispute about homework!)

Posted by: opinionatedreader | December 9, 2009 11:41 PM | Report abuse

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