Poverty and Motivation to Learn

26 June 2009

One of the things I'll be looking at in my dissertation is the motivational aspects of middle school students who qualify for the federal free/reduced lunch program. Within the research literature, there are some well-documented studies that examine ethnicity (spoiler: it doesn't have an impact), gender (see previous spoiler), and student age (spoiler: motivation to learn decreases with age).

What do I think I'll find when we look throw a measure of poverty into the mix? Honestly, I'm not sure. If ethnicity and gender are any indicators, then I should find nothing. Judging by some recent news, however, I think the public at large is under the assumption that students of poverty are oriented toward motivational behaviors at school based on rewards and punishments (as opposed to learning for the sake of learning). There is indication that paying for grades does lead to increased scores on high-stakes tests.
An overwhelming number of schools participating in a controversial program that pays kids for good grades saw huge boosts -- up to nearly 40 percentage points higher -- in reading and math scores this year, a Post analysis found.

About two-thirds of the 59 high-poverty schools in the Sparks program -- which pays seventh-graders up to $500 and fourth-graders as much as $250 for their performance on a total of 10 assessments -- improved their scores since last year's state tests by margins above the citywide average.

The gains at some schools approached 40 percentage points.

For example, at PS 188 on the Lower East Side, 76 percent of fourth-graders met or exceeded state benchmarks in English -- 39.6 percentage points higher than last year, when the kids were in third grade.

At MS 343 in The Bronx, 94 percent of seventh-graders met or surpassed state standards in math this year -- 37.3 points higher than last year, when the students were sixth-graders.

In all, of the 61 fourth and seventh grades involved in the pupil-pay program, only 16 improved less than the citywide average gain in math since last year, while 21 did so in reading.

Principals at the highest-scoring schools cautioned that the Sparks program was just one of many factors in the test-score jumps.

But many reported seeing indisputable academic benefits -- including more motivation, better focus and an increase in healthy competition for good grades among students.

"It's an ego booster in terms of self-worth," said Rose Marie Mills, principal at MS 343 in Mott Haven, where nearly 90 percent of students qualify for federal poverty aid.

"When they get the checks, there's that competitiveness -- 'Oh, I'm going to get more money than you next time' -- so it's something that excites them."

More than 8,000 kids have collectively earned $1.25 million since September in the second year of the privately funded pilot program.

The higher the kids score on tests, the more they get paid: up to a maximum of $50 per test for seventh-graders and up to $25 for fourth-graders.

The initiative, created by Harvard University economist Roland Fryer, is run out of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Educational Innovation Laboratory (EdLabs), which is conducting similar cash-for-kids trials in Chicago and Washington, DC.

Critics argue that paying kids corrupts the notion of learning for education's sake alone.

But supporters of student incentives say immediate rewards are necessary to help some kids connect the dots between school and future income -- and the students agree.

Alize Cancel, a 13-year-old at IS 286, spent some of the $180 she has earned this year on school supplies and shoes.

"It's all we talk about. Every day we ask our teachers, 'Did we pass? When do we get paid?' " she said. "It made me study more because I was getting paid."

Ouch.

The students that I will be studying for my dissertation do not receive external rewards/punishments (at least not through the school system)...so I have to wonder if the personal motivational levels they bring to the school show that would engage more if money was dangled in front. I hope that isn't the case---Pollyanna here would like to think that learning is its own reward, no matter your background.

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7 Comments:

Blogger John Spencer said...

I have a few thoughts on this.

1. Motivation increases at first, but then the rule of diminishing rewards kicks in and the drop is worse than where they began. It's true of all incentive programs.

2. Students are motivated by a personal connection to the subject, to the teacher, to their peers.

3. Scores didn't move up in my class until I de-emphasized achievement and emphasized authentic learning. It wasn't until halfway through my second year that I realized this trend.

9:53 PM  
Blogger The Science Goddess said...

I think you're onto something with the value of short-term vs. long-term gains. Perhaps schools are willing to accept the short-term gains to "look good" at the expense of long-term gains for the students? Has high-stakes testing really pushed us that far?

7:14 AM  
Blogger http://dkzody.wordpress.com said...

Look closely at the homes and the parents. Even in extreme poor homes, where the parents encourage the student, they will do better than in homes where parents have to respect for education. I see it every year with my students.

Also, look at the culture of the school. What does the administration spend time doing--if it's only discipline then there will probably be less learning. How do the kids act in school? It's a big piece of the picture.

7:17 AM  
Blogger Roger Sweeny said...

Hmmmm. The education business basically sells itself to the public by saying, "You need us for individual economic success and county-wide economic growth. If we don't get enough money, people will not do well economically and the country will fall behind the rest of the world."

Then we feel bad that students don't believe "learning is its own reward."

Should we really be surprised?

It sounds like the EdLabs experiment just takes the hypothetical long-term economic reward and makes it a concrete short-term reward.

7:39 AM  
Blogger jsb16 said...

For some of those kids, I'm betting that the financial incentive changes their (perception of their) parents' attitudes towards school. Being paid for school work might mean less (perceived) pressure to get a paying job that isn't school-related.

I'm also with the previous commenters: I'd like to see a longitudinal study of the students who're being paid for test scores, including teacher reports of their motivation...

7:54 AM  
Blogger Annikki said...

I'm not surprised. I'm from an upper middle-class background where money for grades seemed to be pretty standard among my friends. Being paid didn't stop me from becoming a lifelong learner. My autodidact husband says he got rewards for grades too.

I also wouldn't be shocked if it's just one more factor (albeit a small one) contributing to test score differences between high-income and low-income students. Earning your own money through your own efforts can be a powerful motivator. This is mostly capitalistic society, after all.

8:13 PM  
Blogger organized chaos said...

I am very excited you are doing this and look forward to reading about your results.
From what I see at my school there is a large difference between generational and situational poverty. Families who just came into the country and are (for lack of a better term) very poor are still supporting and working with their children. Their children tend to be motivated. Families who have been in the country for years but live in poverty tend to have more unmotivated children. While student teaching in a very rural area I had a first grade student tell me he wasn't allowed to do his homework anymore because his dad said he didn't need to read to work at Walmart...
I am fascinated by your study!

10:22 AM  

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