By Guest Author - 02/06/2017

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‘Cash for class’ a bankrupt idea

According to PISA, 42% of New Zealand students are skipping school at least once every two weeks. Why are kids skipping school, and how do we engage students in the classroom and make sure they stay there? Brentin Mock – a staff writer at The Atlantic’s web magazine CityLab and a parent himself – suggests paying students for showing up to class, using compensation rather than discipline to encourage students’ attendance. While it seems far-fetched, some of the ideas behind paying students to attend class are grounded in real concerns.

Mock argues that a universal attendance payment to students by the state has the potential to help kids who are most at risk. Research shows children who grow up in poverty are at increased risk of educational underachievement and antisocial behaviour, such as truancy. Providing fiscal compensation for education makes it available for those who need it most. Perhaps materially deprived families could pay for their child’s school lunches with the cash they got from attending school rather than having to go without, or use it on a club or extracurricular activity.

However, this kind of payment is not a perfect solution, as it doesn’t appeal to what really motivates students to change their behaviour. Management theorist Frederick Herzberg proposed that lower order needs (physiological, safety) such as financial needs are associated with dissatisfaction, not motivation.

So we’ll complain about our low pay, but we won’t necessarily work harder in order to prove we deserve more money.

Individuals instead look to fulfilling their higher-level needs (social, esteem, self-actualisation) to motivate themselves. This implies giving students a salary may lead to fewer complaints about school but won’t even motivate them to listen in the classes they’re attending. Paying student may cause nominal truancy rates to go down, but educational attainment – students’ learning, responsiveness, engagement – won’t improve.

Recent childhood development research into personality and other character skills doesn’t support Mock’s claim either. It shows these personal qualities play empirically important roles in shaping performance completely apart from the effects of incentives. More than payments, having a warm, supporting parent or mentor can transform lives. Money doesn’t solve relational issues. We don’t just want high schoolers to turn up to class, we want them to engage with the tools to succeed in their lives, through listening to their teachers, gaining academic qualifications, and developing ako, a Maori term describing a reciprocal “teaching and learning relationship” between student and teacher.

What really inspires students to attend school are things like challenging work, recognition for achievement, responsibility and involvement in decision making. The government is already doing some good work around this, with school programmes like “My FRIENDS Youth” and “Check and Connect.” When a teenager wags school, it is not usually because they are strapped for cash. If we want kids to be engaged in class, we should look to encourage mentoring, participative classrooms, and integration between work skills and traditional education. Money won’t inspire disenfranchised teenagers to engage with education, but connection and challenge will.

This guest blog was written by Research Intern Ari Luecker, as part of her placement with Maxim Institute. 

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