A group of 1,500 Oklahoma City middle school students received free cell phones Friday, but they'll have to earn the minutes and text messages as part of a Harvard University economist's research into academic motivation.
For nine months, the students will receive free phones. Two-thirds of them can earn minutes and text messages in exchange for academic success, particularly in reading, in what has been dubbed The Million program.
The phones went to students in grades six and seven in 20 schools in the Oklahoma City School District.
Parents had to apply for their children to participate in the program, and more than 1,900 students signed up.
Harvard economist Roland Fryer has conducted similar experiments in four other urban school systems, using money instead of phones as the incentive. He also did a test-pilot program using phones two years ago in New York.
Official calls program
'a great opportunity'
Opinions are mixed as to the results of those experiments, but count Oklahoma City School District Superintendent Karl Springer among those who sees value in the idea.
"It just seemed like a really fun way of motivating our children to read more books and to be more interested in literacy," Springer told The Associated Press. "It's a great opportunity for us to cause our students to actually get rewarded and recognized for increased reading levels."
District spokeswoman Kathleen Kennedy said current policy allows students to have a phone at school with written consent of parents and the superintendent and that the district has left it up to individual schools to set up accommodations. Students cannot use phones for illegal purposes, she said.
The district's policy on cell phones recently was changed by the school board to be less restrictive of when students can have cell phones on during the school year.
Springer said the district also is considering ways to use the phones for instructional purposes and that the district can control the use of the phones during school hours. The program has drawn the support of local officials including Mayor Mick Cornett, who calls it "a worthy investment of our time and effort."
The program is being coordinated through Fryer's Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard.
"A couple of things make cell phones attractive," said Richard Hagey, the lab's chief operating officer. "You want to give the kids something they value.