As CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker reports, Sierra Intermediate School in Santa Ana, Calif., may have come up with an answer: cold, hard cash.
"Is there anybody here who might be interested in winning, say, $50?" teacher Scott Feldmann asks his class. "How about $250?"
The student scoring highest on a final algebra test will get $250, while the person who finishes 15th gets $25. It's called "Algebra Palooza."
The 3-year-old program is the brainchild of Scott Feldmann. He's a full-time attorney and a part-time education reformer.
"This is just a way to try to help reinforce what the school's doing and give a little pat on the back to the kids at the end of the year," Feldmann said.
Does it work? Feldmann says 13 students scored "proficient" or above the first year of the program. Last year, 31 did.
The concept is seems pretty solid to student Stephany Mendoza. "Everybody likes money," she said.
"Yeah I'll work even harder. Like, the money motivates me," agrees classmate Stephanie Tejeda.
What motivates Scott Feldmann? Well, he looked around his well-heeled Orange County — home to sunny beach communities and a dazzling new music hall — and saw that things didn't add up. The community served by Sierra Intermediate was another world.
"Eighty-eight percent of our student population have parents who did not graduate from high school," said Meg Lloyd, the school's assistant principal. "Eighty to 85 percent are on free and reduced lunch."
So Feldmann and attorneys at his law firm put their heads together and drew up a plan — a lesson plan that is — and put up the money.
But, is Algebra Palooza teaching kids that making money, rather than learning, is the goal?
Theresa Lopez, one of the lawyers who signed on to help, doesn't think so.
"Coming from an inner-city school and an inner-city family, they have a lot of needs and a lot of obstacles in their life, and one of them is money," she said.
Some of the kids want the money for an iPod, but others have other plans.
"Give it to my mom so she could buy stuff for us and, like, for the baby, too," Michael Jaramillo said.
Asked what she would help her parents with, Tamara Arevalo said, "Food. Especially food."
Algebra teacher Larelle Hendon says the effect on students has been incalculable.
"They know they need to do the work and learn, but if you can give them a little extra bonus, a little extra motivation, I don't think there's any harm in that," she said.
It's been such a hit in the algebra classes, Feldmann has launched a history program, and maybe an English Palooza next year.
"It's the American way," Lloyd said. "I think it's one more way to motivate, and I think it's great."