Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Inspiring Parents...Using Cash?

obriena's picture

“Education reform is not just about school improvement. It’s also about informing and inspiring parents so that they can ‘come on the team’ with high expectations and high levels of support” – Bill Jackson, founder and head of Greatschools.org, as quoted yesterday on the Core Knowledge Blog.

Whether or not you personally agree, some policymakers are starting to. The obvious question they must then confront is: How do you inform and inspire parents?

Well, as Larry Ferlazzo wrote recently on a Washington Post blog, two school districts decided to pay them. Parents will get rewarded for attending school events, such as parent-teacher conferences.

There is no denying the evidence that students are more academically successful when there is a strong parent/school connection. But will paying parents actually engage them? According to Ferlazzo, the answer is no. He points to Dan Pink’s work, which has found financial incentives can motivate people to do mechanical tasks (show up for a meeting) but not stimulate more cognitively challenging tasks (speak regularly to children about their school day). And in addition, when the incentive is gone, the behavior stops—and things can get worse. I know I'd stop showing up for work if they stopped paying me. It is not the same, but it is not that different either.

Ferlazzo suggests that rather than providing financial incentives, schools should show parents they truly care. If they have a meaningful relationship with the school, parents will be more likely to take an active interest in their child's education. One way to help develop those relationships is a strucutured home visit program. And there are a number of others.

Of course, parent engagement isn’t the only area for which some education policymakers think financial incentives could hold the key. Some call for paying students to score well on standardized tests. Or for paying teachers whose students do well on standardized tests. But in both those areas as well, there are real concerns about the long-term effects of incentives. Do students who perform well only to get cash gain the intrinsic motivation necessary for success in a global economy? Do teachers who get paid for test scores cut out all coursework not directly related to those tests? To say nothing of whether the incentives actually raise scores on those tests…but even if they do, what is the cost? Have we learned nothing of the perils of encouraging short-term gains at the expense of long-term goals over the past couple years?

Certainly it’s important to try new things when working to increase parent engagement and improve schools in general. But is paying parents really the way to go?

(P.S. In an act of shameless self-promotion, I'll invite you to check out some more of what I have to say on parent engagement in public schools on Lifetime’s The Balancing Act)

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