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Created: February 11, 2006
Latest Update: February 11, 2006
This backup copy is to be used only if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you refer to this to the original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/05/education/05reward.html. Original URL, consulted: February 11, 2006.
February 5, 2006
And for Perfect Attendance, Johnny Gets... a Car
By PAM BELLUCK
Highlighting added by jeanne.
CHELSEA, Mass. — Attendance at Chelsea High School had hovered at a disappointing 90 percent for years, and school officials were determined to turn things around. So, last fall they decided to give students in this poverty-stung city just north of Boston a little extra motivation: students would get $25 for every quarter they had perfect attendance and another $25 if they managed perfect attendance all year.
"I was at first taken a little aback by the idea: we're going to pay kids to come to school?" said the principal, Morton Orlov II. "But then I thought perfect attendance is not such a bad behavior to reward. We are sort of putting our money where our mouth is."
Chelsea High is not the only school trying to improve attendance with incentives for students. Across the country, schools have begun to offer cars, iPods — even a month's rent. Some of the prizes are paid for by local businesses or donors; others come out of school budgets.
In Hartford last year, 9-year-old Fernando Vazquez won a raffle for students with perfect attendance and was given the choice of a new Saturn Ion or $10,000. (His parents chose the money.) At Oldham County High School in Buckner, Ky., Krystal Brooks, 19, won a canary yellow Ford Mustang. In Temecula, Calif., the school district prizes can include iPods, DVD players and a trip to Disneyland.
Many schools have been galvanized by the federal No Child Left Behind law, which factors attendance into its evaluations. And schools, especially in poor districts, are motivated by money from state governments, which is often based on average daily attendance.
In the Chicago public schools, students with perfect attendance for the first three months of the year are eligible to win $500 worth of groceries or up to $1,000 toward a rent or mortgage payment. Joi Mecks, a spokeswoman for the district, said that for every 1 percent increase in its attendance rate, the district received $18 million more in state money.
Schools in Fort Worth had a budget shortfall of $15 million last year, said Beatriz Mince, assistant coordinator for the district's Office of Parent and Public Engagement. "The only way to get extra money is average daily attendance," Ms. Mince said, adding that if average attendance increased by one student, the district would receive an extra $4,700.
Last year, Fort Worth began holding an event for every student with perfect attendance for at least one six-week period. The students have chances to win cars, computers, shopping sprees at Pier One Kids, and a suite at a Texas Rangers game. More weeks of perfect attendance mean more chances of winning.
Some experts, however, say attendance incentives are a bad approach.
"It's against our grain to suggest that you have to cajole, seduce or trick students in order to get them to learn," said Dr. Jeff Bostic, director of school psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. "And where does it end? Are we going to need to give out a Porsche Boxster? Rather than say we're going to pay you if you show up, we've got to work harder at showing how school really does have relevance to these kids' lives."
But other experts say incentives make sense because they parallel the working world, where employees are given financial incentives to work harder or better. Some experts say incentives are acceptable if the rewards are education-related — laptops, say, instead of cars.
"In education, we just find such few things that work," said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning research organization. "If something works, the ideological burden to not do it has to be huge."
Whether the programs are working is an open question. At Chelsea High School this year, attendance rates actually went down, to as low as 85 percent. School officials and students said the decline occurred because the new policy also softened punishment for poor attendance. Students were no longer getting grade-point reductions for unexcused absences or having grades withheld if they had more than two unexcused days per quarter.
Bianca Viggiani, a 17-year-old senior, said her attendance this year had been worse than ever. "You don't get penalized," Ms. Viggiani said on a day she happened to be in school. "Now, you can be absent up to 14 days straight" before the school takes action.
And the incentive?
"It's $25," she said. "I mean, almost nobody cares."
But some districts, like Stone Creek Elementary School in Rossville, Ga., a poor, rural community, have seen significant improvements.
"When No Child Left Behind came in, that was a big wake-up call for us," said the Stone Creek principal, Mike Culberson.
Mr. Culberson said that about 15 percent of his students had been absent for more than 15 days in 2003. He started giving children with perfect attendance incentives like ice cream and chances to win bicycles, video game systems and other prizes displayed in the school's lobby.
In 2004 only 4.7 percent of students missed more than 15 days, Mr. Culberson said, and last year only 3.5 percent did. He said the average daily attendance was about 98 percent. He also said that scores on national reading and math tests had risen significantly, which he attributed to improved attendance.
"Some people could look at it like we're trying to bribe the kids to come to school," he said, "but if it takes that to instill a lifelong value in them, then it's worth it."
Back in Massachusetts, the headmaster at the high school in Lowell, William J. Samaras, said a program to give laptops to graduating seniors who missed no more than seven days of school drew criticism that "we're giving them a prize in a sense to do what they're supposed to do anyway."
But Mr. Samaras said the program worked, stanching an attitude among seniors that "attendance was for everybody but them." Of 670 seniors, 200 qualified for laptops last year, which turned the program into a raffle because the school had only 77 to give away.
Some schools said incentives had prompted students to come to school even when they were sick. Mr. Culberson said a woman recently brought her daughter in a little late, saying, "We woke up neither of us feeling good, but she told me she had to come."
In the Forth Worth incentive program, average daily attendance in the 80,000-student district increased by about 200 students in the first year, said Ms. Mince of the Office of Parent and Public Engagement.
But some students, like 22-year-old Humberto Avila, who attends night school, were not motivated by the prize. "I like going to the school," said Mr. Avila, who won a Ford Ranger truck. "I think I got perfect attendance the whole time."
In Chicago, Joshua Lee, 14, won a month's mortgage payment, which helped his widowed mother. He said he did not know the district was giving awards for perfect attendance and was "pretty positive about school already."
Ms. Mecks, the district spokeswoman, said attendance was about the same as last year. She said it was too soon to evaluate the program.
Education experts could not think of any studies on whether attendance incentives work, but studies on whether incentives improve academic performance indicate that money can work but is most effective among younger students who are "more sort of willing to buy into a teacher or someone saying, 'This is important, try hard,' " said Harry O'Neil, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Southern California.
Professor O'Neil found that eighth graders performed better on tests when they were paid $1 for each correct answer, but 12th graders' performance did not improve.
He said he was intrigued by Chicago's program because the rent and grocery awards appealed to parents, who then might have greater interest in seeing that their children attend school. But he said he was skeptical of Chelsea's program because students did not collect the money until graduation.
"The trick with incentives is how big a thing does it have to be to be meaningful to the person," he said, "and also how long the delay is between doing something and getting a reward for it."
Administrators, teachers and students at Chelsea said the school's program also made it clear that punitive measures were needed in the first quarter at Chelsea, 107 out of 1,500 students had perfect attendance, about the same as last year, said Mr. Orlov, the principal. In the second quarter, 73 students did.
One student with perfect attendance in the first quarter was Stephanie Murcia, a 17-year-old junior who said she was motivated less by the $25 incentive than by the experience of failing her freshman year because of the absenteeism penalty under the old attendance policy. "I saw those F's, and it was kind of like a slap in the face," Ms. Murcia said.
Students and teachers said it was obvious that absenteeism was up under the incentive-only policy. One teacher, John E. Cammarata, said that at times as many as half the students were missing from his first-period chemistry class. "I never had that problem last year," Mr. Cammarata said.
Joe Resnek, 16, the junior class president, said "the rooms are noticeably emptier, each class that I'm in."
Mr. Orlov said students clearly knew "that the big hammer is off" if they missed school. "Obviously the incentive didn't quite offset that."
This month, Mr. Orlov revised the policy, keeping the incentives but reinstating some penalties. On the first day of the revisions, he said, attendance was 93 percent. Some students, however, said the incentive-only policy had had unexpected benefits because those who attended school were more likely to want to be there.
"Usually in a classroom that has kids that don't want to come to school, you don't get a lot of participation," said Sonya Garcia, 16, a junior. "It lowers my motivation for working. If I'm working with people who are focused, it creates competition and that gets me motivated."
Mr. Resnek agreed. "It's almost created a better school," he said. "It's selfish, but it's better for us who are here."
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company