COMMENTARY | When the Dohn Community High School, a charter school near Cincinnati, announced plans to pay students for expected behaviors such as attending class and staying out of trouble, it ignited criticism and praise. Can schools justify offering money to students for expected classroom effort? Is the school bribing students with cash incentives -- or offering motivational rewards for success?
Cash incentives are strong motivators but teach weak life lessons if poorly managed. It certainly seems reasonable that pledges of weekly cash gift cards stand to provide incentives for students to attend classes regularly -- and even promote parental involvement.
Unfortunately, the hidden lesson teaches kids to expect unrealistic instant gratification for short term efforts, which studies show vary by race and gender. While this might increase the schools' reported successes, it's a superficial Band-Aid on deeper wounds affecting the school system.
What happens if the donated money runs out? If the gift card reward system entices the children into school for real motivation and encouragement, then it will be money well spent. If, however, faculty continues business as usual without reaching the challenging families, then the students will disappear with the depleted incentives. If this program relies only on financial gains and attention, then the school is offering misguided, short-term bribes rather than rewards to students.
Many will argue students receive rewards for efforts in this situation. A bribe holds a negative connotation, while a reward implies something positive. Unfortunately, the distinct line is easily muddled. When is a reward defined as a reward-and not a bribe? Who benefits most from paying students for efforts-especially if those incentives are short lived?
Does Dohn Community High School hope to reach students with their proposed gift card program or are they motivated to boost poor school ratings?
Schools seeking creative incentives for students have opportunities to create extremely positive outcomes from such programs. They also have unfortunate opportunities to bribe students in ways that sway short term school record retention and reporting, producing few results to the students and potentially large results for schools.