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NCLB Outrages

And for Perfect Attendance, Johnny Gets... a Car

Ohanian Comment: How long will it be before some crackerjack numbers crunchers comes up with the idea to reward teachers for perfect attendance?

The real outrage here is that schools didn't do much about attendance until NCLB made it part of their formula.

When will schools come up with the idea of improving curriculum to encourage attendance?

By Pam Belluck

CHELSEA, Mass. Attendance at Chelsea High School had hovered at a
disappointing 90 percent for years, and school officials were
determined to turn things around. So, last fall they decided to give
students in this poverty-stung city just north of Boston a little extra
motivation: students would get $25 for every quarter they had perfect
attendance and another $25 if they managed perfect attendance all year.

"I was at first taken a little aback by the idea: we're going to pay
kids to come to school?" said the principal, Morton Orlov II. "But then
I thought perfect attendance is not such a bad behavior to reward. We
are sort of putting our money where our mouth is."

Chelsea High is not the only school trying to improve attendance with
incentives for students. Across the country, schools have begun to
offer cars, iPods even a month's rent. Some of the prizes are paid
for by local businesses or donors; others come out of school budgets.

In Hartford last year, 9-year-old Fernando Vazquez won a raffle for
students with perfect attendance and was given the choice of a new
Saturn Ion or $10,000. (His parents chose the money.) At Oldham County
High School in Buckner, Ky., Krystal Brooks, 19, won a canary yellow
Ford Mustang. In Temecula, Calif., the school district prizes can
include iPods, DVD players and a trip to Disneyland.

Many schools have been galvanized by the federal No Child Left Behind
law, which factors attendance into its evaluations. And schools,
especially in poor districts, are motivated by money from state
governments, which is often based on average daily attendance.

In the Chicago public schools, students with perfect attendance for the
first three months of the year are eligible to win $500 worth of
groceries or up to $1,000 toward a rent or mortgage payment. Joi Mecks,
a spokeswoman for the district, said that for every 1 percent increase
in its attendance rate, the district received $18 million more in state

Schools in Fort Worth had a budget shortfall of $15 million last year,
said Beatriz Mince, assistant coordinator for the district's Office of
Parent and Public Engagement. "The only way to get extra money is
average daily attendance," Ms. Mince said, adding that if average
attendance increased by one student, the district would receive an
extra $4,700.

Last year, Fort Worth began holding an event for every student with
perfect attendance for at least one six-week period. The students have
chances to win cars, computers, shopping sprees at Pier One Kids, and a
suite at a Texas Rangers game. More weeks of perfect attendance mean
more chances of winning.

Some experts, however, say attendance incentives are a bad approach.

"It's against our grain to suggest that you have to cajole, seduce or
trick students in order to get them to learn," said Dr. Jeff Bostic,
director of school psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. "And
where does it end? Are we going to need to give out a Porsche Boxster?
Rather than say we're going to pay you if you show up, we've got to
work harder at showing how school really does have relevance to these
kids' lives."

But other experts say incentives make sense because they parallel the
working world, where employees are given financial incentives to work
harder or better. Some experts say incentives are acceptable if the
rewards are education-related laptops, say, instead of cars.

"In education, we just find such few things that work," said Tom
Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a
liberal-leaning research organization. "If something works, the
ideological burden to not do it has to be huge."

Whether the programs are working is an open question. At Chelsea High
School this year, attendance rates actually went down, to as low as 85
percent. School officials and students said the decline occurred
because the new policy also softened punishment for poor attendance.
Students were no longer getting grade-point reductions for unexcused
absences or having grades withheld if they had more than two unexcused
days per quarter.

Bianca Viggiani, a 17-year-old senior, said her attendance this year
had been worse than ever. "You don't get penalized," Ms. Viggiani said
on a day she happened to be in school. "Now, you can be absent up to 14
days straight" before the school takes action.

And the incentive?

"It's $25," she said. "I mean, almost nobody cares."

But some districts, like Stone Creek Elementary School in Rossville,
Ga., a poor, rural community, have seen significant improvements.

"When No Child Left Behind came in, that was a big wake-up call for
us," said the Stone Creek principal, Mike Culberson.

Mr. Culberson said that about 15 percent of his students had been
absent for more than 15 days in 2003. He started giving children with
perfect attendance incentives like ice cream and chances to win
bicycles, video game systems and other prizes displayed in the school's

In 2004 only 4.7 percent of students missed more than 15 days, Mr.
Culberson said, and last year only 3.5 percent did. He said the average
daily attendance was about 98 percent. He also said that scores on
national reading and math tests had risen significantly, which he
attributed to improved attendance.

"Some people could look at it like we're trying to bribe the kids to
come to school," he said, "but if it takes that to instill a lifelong
value in them, then it's worth it."

Back in Massachusetts, the headmaster at the high school in Lowell,
William J. Samaras, said a program to give laptops to graduating
seniors who missed no more than seven days of school drew criticism
that "we're giving them a prize in a sense to do what they're supposed
to do anyway."

But Mr. Samaras said the program worked, stanching an attitude among
seniors that "attendance was for everybody but them." Of 670 seniors,
200 qualified for laptops last year, which turned the program into a
raffle because the school had only 77 to give away.

Some schools said incentives had prompted students to come to school
even when they were sick. Mr. Culberson said a woman recently brought
her daughter in a little late, saying, "We woke up neither of us
feeling good, but she told me she had to come."

In the Forth Worth incentive program, average daily attendance in the
80,000-student district increased by about 200 students in the first
year, said Ms. Mince of the Office of Parent and Public Engagement.

But some students, like 22-year-old Humberto Avila, who attends night
school, were not motivated by the prize. "I like going to the school,"
said Mr. Avila, who won a Ford Ranger truck. "I think I got perfect
attendance the whole time."

In Chicago, Joshua Lee, 14, won a month's mortgage payment, which
helped his widowed mother. He said he did not know the district was
giving awards for perfect attendance and was "pretty positive about
school already."

Ms. Mecks, the district spokeswoman, said attendance was about the same
as last year. She said it was too soon to evaluate the program.

Education experts could not think of any studies on whether attendance
incentives work, but studies on whether incentives improve academic
performance indicate that money can work but is most effective among
younger students who are "more sort of willing to buy into a teacher or
someone saying, 'This is important, try hard,' " said Harry O'Neil, a
professor of educational psychology at the University of Southern

Professor O'Neil found that eighth graders performed better on tests
when they were paid $1 for each correct answer, but 12th graders'
performance did not improve.

He said he was intrigued by Chicago's program because the rent and
grocery awards appealed to parents, who then might have greater
interest in seeing that their children attend school. But he said he
was skeptical of Chelsea's program because students did not collect the
money until graduation.

"The trick with incentives is how big a thing does it have to be to be
meaningful to the person," he said, "and also how long the delay is
between doing something and getting a reward for it."

Administrators, teachers and students at Chelsea said the school's
program also made it clear that punitive measures were needed. In the
first quarter at Chelsea, 107 out of 1,500 students had perfect
attendance, about the same as last year, said Mr. Orlov, the principal.
In the second quarter, 73 students did.

One student with perfect attendance in the first quarter was Stephanie
Murcia, a 17-year-old junior who said she was motivated less by the $25
incentive than by the experience of failing her freshman year because
of the absenteeism penalty under the old attendance policy. "I saw
those F's, and it was kind of like a slap in the face," Ms. Murcia

Students and teachers said it was obvious that absenteeism was up under
the incentive-only policy. One teacher, John E. Cammarata, said that at
times as many as half the students were missing from his first-period
chemistry class. "I never had that problem last year," Mr. Cammarata

Joe Resnek, 16, the junior class president, said "the rooms are
noticeably emptier, each class that I'm in."

Mr. Orlov said students clearly knew "that the big hammer is off" if
they missed school. "Obviously the incentive didn't quite offset that."

This month, Mr. Orlov revised the policy, keeping the incentives but
reinstating some penalties. On the first day of the revisions, he said,
attendance was 93 percent. Some students, however, said the
incentive-only policy had had unexpected benefits because those who
attended school were more likely to want to be there.

"Usually in a classroom that has kids that don't want to come to
school, you don't get a lot of participation," said Sonya Garcia, 16, a
junior. "It lowers my motivation for working. If I'm working with
people who are focused, it creates competition and that gets me

Mr. Resnek agreed. "It's almost created a better school," he said.
"It's selfish, but it's better for us who are here."

— Pam Belluck
New York Times


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