FAIRBURN, Ga. Learning is supposed to be its own reward, but when that doesn't work, should students get paid to do it?
That's the question two Georgia schools are asking in a 15-week pilot program that is paying high-schoolers struggling in math and science $8 an hour to attend study hall for four hours a week.
The privately funded Learn & Earn initiative, an idea from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is touted as the first of its kind in the state and one of a few similar programs nationwide.
"We want to try something new," said Jackie Cushman, Gingrich's daughter and co-founder of the group funding the initiative. "We're trying to figure out what works. Is it the answer? No. Is it a possible idea that might work? Yes."
Forty students at Bear Creek Middle School and Creekside High School, both in the Atlanta suburb of Fairburn, began participating in the program recently. The eighth- and 11th-graders chosen had to be underperforming in math and science, and many are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches.
The hope is that the bribes will boost students' motivation to learn, attend class and get better grades.
Aside from the hourly wage, eighth-graders will get a $75 bonus, and 11th-graders $125, if they improve their math and science grades to a B and achieve certain test scores. For the older kids, that adds up to $605 for a semester of studying.
Cushman said the initiative is aimed at math and science because many students struggle in those subjects even if they excel in others.
The offer could help poor students who need the money and otherwise might choose a minimum-wage job over studying, said Jerome Morris, an associate professor at the University of Georgia's College of Education. He also noted that parents who have the means to reward their children for performing well in school have done so for decades.
"Poor families just can't do that," Morris said. "They have to tell their children, 'You have to go to school just to learn."'
The director of a private center aimed at improving motivation, however, said plying kids with cash is a desperate move by school officials.
"They have not figured out a way to self-motivate these kids," said Peter A. Spevak, director of the Center for Applied Motivation in Washington, D.C. "What really drives a person is the desire to do well and the good feeling you have after doing your best every day."
Paying children to learn may work in the short term, but before long, the luster could wear off, and they may look to up the ante, Spevak said. Ultimately, it could become a losing game.
"When you take the money away, assuming it has been effective, people sometimes get angry or disillusioned," he said. "They may start to wonder where the next prize is coming from."
The $60,000 initiative is being funded by Atlanta businessman Charles Loudermilk, founder of Aaron Rents, through the Learning Makes a Difference Foundation Inc., an Atlanta-based nonprofit that funds innovative education programs and was founded by Gingrich's daughters.
Alexis Yarger, one of the Fairburn program's participants, is eager to try anything to improve her grades.
The 16-year-old Creekside junior plans to attend Spelman College and says that although she's doing OK in science, "Math is not my best."
Yarger, who has a part-time job at Burger King, said she was interested in the program even before she heard about the financial incentives. She would have taken part even without the money, she said, but her father said the cash doesn't hurt.
"It's a good motivational tactic," Anthony Yarger said. "Whether it's a dollar or a candy bar, if it's helpful, I support it."