Westland – How much is an improved grade point average worth? How about $200 a semester?

Sounds great to Donovan Gilbert, a 10th grader at John Glenn High School.

“I like how I’m getting more help to get my assignments in and my grades are improving a lot from last year,” said Donovan, 15.

But what about the money?

He chuckles a bit. “It’s nice to get the money, yeah.”

At Glenn High, 400 of 1,850 students have signed up to get paid for getting better grades, under a program funded through a $50,000 donation from Glenn Shaw, a businessman and former city council member, said assistant principal Kim Cieszynski. They’re being mentored by 92 teachers who volunteered for the program.

To participate, students sign a contract agreeing to improve their grade point average by at least 0.5.

The idea of paying students for improved performance isn’t new, but it’s controversial. Wayne Memorial High School, also in the Wayne-Westland Community Schools, has offered money for better grades for the past few years, and districts across the country have tried it too, with varying results.

“Some students need an additional push or reason to achieve,” said Cieszynski, who coordinated the program along with school psychologist Louis Przybylski. “Now we see students who weren’t even attending classes working extremely hard, and it’s bringing our students and staff together.”

Shaw, 72, of Canton, said he simply wants to help students achieve their goals.

“It’s a great school, so let’s see if we can help students pick up their grade point averages,” he said Friday from Florida, where he’s visiting. “The $200 is a little hook to get them started.”

Cieszynski calls Glenn High’s program an “additional incentive.”

She is mentoring nine students, discussing their concerns, where they’re heading and whether they need tutoring.

“I get to know them on a more personal level,” Cieszynski said. “I’m seeing them so energized and excited to be in school focusing on their grades.”

Math teacher Dan Coon is mentoring four students in the program.

“I am able to check their grades online and it provides another set of eyes, which is very positive on my end,” said Coon. “We just completed a card marking period and students have been bringing in missing assignments, which brought up their grade levels. There have been varying levels of success, but all of my mentees have had increased achievement.”

Cheryl Solberg of Westland is a believer. Her son, David, is a 10th grader at Glenn High, and she has seen a major shift in his focus since the $200 incentive was offered.

“None of my other kids ever went to parent-teacher conferences with me, but now David goes to them with me so he can talk to the teachers about his goals,” said Solberg. “When I first found out about the program, I questioned why they had to pay students to get good grades. But this has brought him way up to another level and I think it is fantastic.”

But critics question whether pay-to-perform plans produce lasting results.

“Generally, the research shows that rewarding kids for working may motivate them to study until they get the reward, but when you withdraw the reward, they often stop studying,” said Kathy Seal, an author who has written about competition and pressure in education.

“If you consistently pay kids to study, they will come to believe that the reason for studying is to get money, and they won’t study unless they’re paid,” she said. “And no one is going to pay students to study in college.”

Brad Allan, chief of staff for Harvard University’s EdLabs education research laboratory, was involved in similar programs implemented in schools in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Both began in the 2008-09 school year.

D.C.’s program, Capital Gains, gave middle school students cash rewards, while Chicago’s Paper Project involved 9th and 10th graders.

“The Paper Project ended after one year, though we did follow up with students who graduated several years later to give them the second half of their earnings,” said Allan. “Capital Gains went for two years and ended after the 2009-10 school year.”

He said the Chicago program ended due to lack of funding, while the D.C. was meant to be a two-year experiment.

“The results were mixed,” he said. “In Chicago, we did not see increases in student achievement. In D.C., we did see some positive effects but due to small sample size, it was difficult to draw rigorous conclusions.”

Allan’s conclusion: “After seeing the results from Chicago, D.C., and several other cities, we know that incentives can be a cost-effective tool for raising student achievement as long as it is carefully designed.”

Percy Bates, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Michigan School of Education, believes incentive programs are worth trying.

“We are always looking for unique and creative ways to motivate students and especially as it relates to ‘real life’ situations,” he said. “The program at John Glenn High School clearly seems to be doing just that. While some may be concerned about the message that a program like this sends to its students, it is only one aspect of the total education for the students.”

Shaw, for his part, says he just wants to see today’s students do better than he did. He chuckles when asked about his grades decades ago at Wayne Memorial High School.

“Well, I had a 2.2 grade point average in high school,” he said. “But God bless Miss Kitts. In my senior year, she told me she wanted to talk to me after class. She said, ‘I see your report card and I know you can do better.’

“Just from her saying those words, I was on the honor roll in the next card marking,” Shaw recalled. “She motivated me to achieve it and I did. I realize today that she was a mentor, and that’s what I want for those kids.”

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