How do we motivate kids to learn? Educators have been asking this question for years, with no easy, catch-all solution. Ideally, students would be motivated by an intrinsic love of learning. However, that’s just not the reality for many students, especially those who are low-income and at-risk. Sometimes external incentives – such as cash – are the motivation these students need.

A Cincinnati high school made national headlines last week for offering students cash for perfect attendance and good behavior. Every Friday, the small charter school will dish out Visa gift cards to students who attended class every day that week, were on time and were productive in class. Seniors will receive $25, underclassmen, $10. Every paycheck, an additional $5 will be automatically deposited into a savings account, payable to the student upon graduation. While the program has received a lot of criticism, using cash to incentivize kids in school is not an uncommon practice.

In August of 2011, a Camden, New Jersey high school launched a five-week long anti-truancy program. Students were required not to skip school during the program, in addition to attending the after-school sessions. Perfect attendance for the duration of the program resulted in a $100 pay check.

In the fall of 2005, students at Chelsea High School in Boston began earning $25 every quarter they have perfect attendance. The money is held from students until graduation, where it is awarded in a lump sum.

Does motivating kids with cash work? It depends, says Harvard economist Roland Fryer. From 2007 to 2009, Fryer ran four different cash incentive studies in Chicago, New York, Washington D.C. and Dallas. In some schools, he offered incentives based off attendance and good behavior and in others, based off grades and standardized test scores. He found that rewarding students for things in their direct control – i.e. attendance and behavior – lead to positive results, while paying students for good grades and higher test scores had virtually no effect.

Do you think paying students to attend class is a good idea? Could it work in your school? What are the short term vs. long term effects?

Students from the Takoma Education Campus in Washington D.C. – one of the locations for Fryer’s studies – line up to collect their vouchers. Image courtesy of