RALEIGH, N.C. — Nine-year-old Samantha Hubbard's eyes popped open for an instant as the thought flashed through her mind.
Would she study harder if North Carolina offered to pay her $1,000 a year from first grade through high-school graduation if she came to class, behaved, and earned good grades?
It's a reach beyond rewards like gold stars and pizza parties. But dangling cash rewards could be the cheapest and most effective motivator to raise test scores and lower dropout rates, said Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, who is proposing the idea in legislation awaiting a committee hearing. If the money is paid to parents, that could get them more involved in helping their children succeed, he said.
"I think it's good. I think you should give the money to kids," said Samantha, the mention of a new bicycle in her ears.
Her parents weren't impressed.
"I think it's a bad idea. Even if the money went to me. I think that's a worse idea, for it to go to the parents. I think if you're going to do it it's going to have to go to the kids when they graduate," said Vanessa Hubbard, who with her husband David chaperoned their daughter's Archdale Elementary School class on a visit to the state museums in Raleigh. "No, our tax money shouldn't pay to motivate them as a parent."
But she pictured the effect a potential reward might have on Samantha.
"She would get us to help her to study harder so that she could get her money. That's how it would work," Vanessa Hubbard said.
Whether the motivation springs from a child or from parents who start helping with homework, showing up at teacher conferences, or just prepping their youngster to meet the morning school bell on time, cash rewards might be worth a try, Hartsell said.
"We've tried a lot of other things. Cash incentives sometimes work," he said. "We create incentives for all kinds of other activities, primarily business. But why not this?"
Hartsell and co-sponsor Sen. Eric Mansfield, D-Cumberland, want to take their time looking at the pros and cons.
The first step is the General Assembly starting a two-year study of whether the state should offer student incentives, and whether a payout most motivates students, parents or teachers. The initial idea is to explore offering cash to each of the state's 1.4 million public school students from grades 1 through 12 who meet certain goals. Taking it slow would allow the public to decide whether they like or hate the idea, Hartsell said.
A statewide student rewards program would be a bold expansion beyond the experimenting that's been going on for years in local school districts.
Baltimore, New York City, Chicago, Houston, and Fulton County, Ga., have been testing programs that pay for learning. A technology entrepreneur started offering $250 checks in 2004 to high school students who excel in academics, community service, and attendance. The Challenge Program is now in 125 schools in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia.
Research in a field merging economics and education suggests that offering rewards can work, but don't always improve results.
A Stanford study of 250 charter schools in 17 states found that cash, MP3 players, or other gifts appears to improve reading skills. Students in Coshocton, Ohio, who were given cash if they performed well on state achievement tests did somewhat better in math, but not in reading. A Harvard study of more than 250 urban schools in Dallas, Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C., found that financial rewards worked better if they were tied not to results such as grades and test scores but to short-term behaviors like reading books and daily attendance.
"Incentives work but only when rationally designed, consistently applied and universally supported by those in charge of using the system," said Margaret Raymond, who authored the Stanford study. She said it may be too hard to legislate those conditions across a state, and more reasonable to leave local school systems to adapt to local conditions.
Duke University public policy and economics William Darity thinks paying kids for grades is a distraction from the more important task of insuring that all receive a high-quality instruction.
"I am convinced that we need to change the content of what kids are taught not necessarily change the kids," he said.
Chris Campbell of Archdale is also skeptical about paying kids to learn when there are so many other needs. He's concerned public schools are falling behind the rest of the world in math, science and the use of technology.
"I could see both sides of it — being a good idea to motivate, for the student to want to learn more or better. But also, at the same time, I think money could be better spent in the schools," said Campbell, who was on the same school field trip as the Hubbards.
Damario Leathers, a father of four, welcomes the idea of additional financial aid for his children's college accounts.
"It's a nice start," he said. "College – I want that for all of my children, so I support this program 100 percent."