The Value of Good Grades

Schools offer Happy Meals and cash to improve scores.

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Susan Pagan of Orlando didn't smile when her 9-year-old daughter Cathy recently brought home a report card that could be traded in for a free McDonald's Happy Meal. The burger-and-fries combo was the girl's reward for making the honor roll. Pagan, who works in advertising, complained to the school district, saying fast food for high marks was a tasteless way to motivate kids. "It's good to reward students but not when schools get companies to advertise directly to our children," she says of the Ronald McDonald cartoon on the report card jacket.

Facing mounting pressure to raise students' scores on standardized tests, schools are prodding kids to work harder by offering them clear-cut incentives. Happy Meals are at the low end of the scale. With the help of businesses, schools are also giving away cars, iPods, coveted seats to basketball games, and—in a growing number of cases—cold, hard cash. The appeal of such programs is obvious, but the consequences of tying grades to goods are still uncertain. It's been a common tradition in middle-class families to reward top grades with cash as a way to teach that success in school leads to success in life. But for many disadvantaged minority children, the long-term benefits of getting an education are not so clear, according to experts.

Cash. Roland Fryer, a Harvard professor of economics, says it's "absurd" to expect children who grew up in poverty, with parents who, for example, dropped out of school, to appreciate the value of education without giving them immediate rewards for taking school seriously. As the chief equality officer for New York City public schools, Fryer oversees a pilot program that pays students from low-performing schools $25 and $50 for doing well on standardized tests. "We're not undermining this idea of learning for the love of learning," Fryer says. "We're trying to cultivate it by making education tangible for these kids." Before the holidays, Fryer handed out $170,000 in cash (every pupil who completes the test gets $5). The students—fourth and seventh graders—told him they would use the money for a variety of things: new sneakers, a Christmas gift for Mom, and their family's rent.

In Dallas, high school students can pocket about $100 for every passing score on college-level examinations. The Advanced Placement Incentive Program "has created a culture where it's cooler to be in an AP class than to be in a regular class," says Michael Watkins, associate principal at W. T. White High School. The influx of less prepared minority students has brought down the school's passing rate on AP tests. But, Watkins says, at least those students are getting exposed to challenging classes taught by the best teachers, and that's in turn motivating many to pursue college. It helps that teachers can also cash in on their students' success.

No one knows for sure how well cash and other big-ticket rewards work in education over the long haul. But there are plenty of critics who say that "bribing" kids could have negative effects. In an era of high-stakes testing, rewards conceivably could fuel even more student anxiety, says Virginia Shiller, a Yale University clinical psychologist and author of Rewards for Kids! Shiller says that it's worth experimenting with cash incentives but that tying them to perfect attendance or success on a test is not a worthwhile goal. "I'd rather see rewards based on effort and responsibility—things that will lead to success in life," she says.

Even if rewards don't lead to individual achievement on a test, they could have a meaningful effect in the school. Rather than give money to his college alma mater, Charles McVean, a businessman and philanthropist, started a peer tutoring program at East High School in Memphis, where he was once a student. The program pays higher-achieving students $10 an hour to tutor struggling classmates and divides them into teams. During the course of the year, students bond and compete. The team that posts the highest math scores wins the top cash prize of $100. McVean calls the combination of peer tutoring, competition, and cash incentives a recipe for "nothing less than magic."