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The Price of Education

Is paying students to attend classes right? Is it effective?

With U.S. education statistics continuing to underwhelm policy makers, parents, and tax payers alike, a great deal of pressure has been placed on today’s instructors to find innovative and consistent means of improving student performance. 

Dohn Community High School—a tuition-free public charter in Cincinnati—has embarked on a controversial approach to keeping students engaged: paying them to attend classes ($25 per week for seniors, and $10 per week for everyone else). According to a WLWT article, the school saw 50 students graduate this year—a figure that nearly doubles that of the previous year. The program also saw growth in number of enrollees.

Division 15 (Educational Psychology) of the American Psychological Association took this story to our members to discuss the potential merits and ramifications of such a policy.

Marcus Johnson, an educational psychologist with classroom experience in low-income areas, expressed concern over the implications of the policy, and how it might set a negative precedence for student efforts:

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If I were a student and paid just for attending, I might be bold enough to request getting paid just to be on time, or for having my shirt tucked-in. I could, perhaps, say to myself, “there's no incentive for me to pay attention, so I won't. I'll withhold all of my efforts and engagement for those who will compensate me for it. And, if there is no monetary incentive for me to go to college, why work hard towards it?”

“Monetary incentives,” he concludes, “can be detrimental for long-term mastery and future success because the money can act as a distractor from the actual task.”

Professor Tim Urdan (Santa Clara University) agreed that the approach raised a number of issues, but that it may be ultimately worthwhile:

The use of extrinsic rewards (such as cash) has many negative and unintended consequences, such as decreasing intrinsic motivation and creating an unfair system that directs even more resources to the highest-achieving and wealthiest students. A better option is to reshape curriculum to make them more interesting and relevant to students, to de-emphasize standardized tests and their consequences, and to emphasize the development of student competence rather than the demonstration of it. In addition, educators must be mindful about what is being rewarded. Paying students for high test scores is useless.  Paying students who are at risk of dropping out for instead graduating would be a good investment.

From a bottom-line perspective, anything that increases the likelihood of graduation is a good strategy. Paying students increases these chances, and may keep students engaged long enough for them to develop the maturity to develop their own sense of valuing of education—a long-term motivational benefit. Even if it doesn't, however, the effect of simply pushing many those who would otherwise drop out across the finish line makes paying students worth it.

In reviewing the sentiment of nearly all members responding, it appears that a general consensus was reached that Dohn’s system isn’t ideal, and perhaps a shortcut for results that could be achieved through alternate approaches.

Wade George is the Director of Communications for the American Psychological Association, Division of Educational Psychology.

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