Will middle school students hit the books, show up on time and be on their best behavior if they're getting paid?
As Washington, D.C., students start back to school this week, that's the thinking behind a new program just launched in the district. As early as October at 14 of 28 D.C. middle schools, students will get paid to perform as part of a pilot program that rewards kids for good grades, attendance and behavior.
Kids could rake in up to $100 per month, getting paid every two weeks through the program.
"These short-term incentives … are intended to ultimately spark our students' long-term interest in their own education," said D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee in a statement last Thursday.
Paying students to perform isn't entirely novel. Washington's program is part of a spreading experimental movement to inspire children to learn. But some argue that the financial incentive is too radical and that students shouldn't be paid to do what many of their peers, and their parents, have done for free.
"I understand their reasoning for offering financial incentives, and I understand the chancellor's point that a lot of families do offer their own incentives, and this is to even the playing field, but I don't think it's the schools decision to offer that," Faye Brenner, a mother and educator in nearby Fairfax County, Va., told ABCNews.com Monday.
Former D.C. public school teacher Jamie Welsh, who taught first grade at Whittier Elementary for four years, said her initial reaction was that paying students was a terrible idea. But Welsh said she has started to warm up to the proposal, adding that parents don't always encourage and motivate children enough at home.
"No one wants to motivate kids with money," Welsh said to ABCNews.com. "I would really try hard not to motivate kids by bribing them. You always want the intrinsic motivation, you always want kids to be motivated by themselves. But that takes parents."
Whether the program will churn out more high-performing, studious children remains to be seen.
But some data suggest that cash for kids can bring results. A study released in the fall issue of Education Next, published by the Hoover Institution, an organization addressing school reform, concluded that paying high school students -- at least those at the Advanced Placement level -- could be an "exceptionally good investment."
Study author and Cornell economist C. Kirabo Jackson analyzed what happened at schools in Texas for two years after the incentive program started in 1996. He found a 30 percent increase n the number of people who received scores of 1,100 on the SAT and 24 on the ACT.
"My evidence suggests that these outcomes are likely the result of stronger encouragement from teachers and guidance counselors to enroll in AP courses, better information provided to students, and changes in teacher and peer norms," Jackson wrote of his research.
Meantime, Brenner, an advanced academic program specialist who supervises AP courses for Fairfax County, said advanced courses already have a built-in pay-off for students and parents because high scores could earn them scholarships to college.
"I would assume that if you give students financial incentives for APs or for staying in school and having good attendance, it's going to work," Brenner said. "I just would like to think that there are other ways of doing it."
Brenner said the Fairfax school system has decided not to use its grant money for financial incentives and uses funds for efforts like staff development instead.
The D.C. pilot program rests on the hope that rewarding students who have not yet entered high school could motivate them at a critical age before they lose interest.
A report put together for a pilot program called Spark, for younger students in New York City, also cited research suggesting that group average test scores for third through seventh graders in the Bronx during the 2004-2005 school year improved when kids were rewarded with things like pizza parties, ice cream and tickets to the zoo.
Bear Paul, formerly a middle school teacher at Hart Middle School in Washington, D.C., said he likes "the idea to get out of the box."
"I like the bravery in doing it," said Paul, now a middle and high school math teacher at The Field School in Washington, D.C. "It seems like they're saying, 'We're not ok with status quo.'"
Still, Paul added that the incentive program should be accompanied by extensive teacher training.
Had this been the case in his classroom, "There could have been a lot of pressure on the teacher over this and I'd love to have had a very prescribed, kind of, what the parameters are for the system," he said. "I really like the fact that they're at least putting aggressive systems in to kind of guide the system to where they want to be going."