Feature

Education: Paying students for good grades

In a pilot program in Washington, D.C., middle-school students who meet academic, behavior, and attendance standards will collect points that can be exchanged for cash.

Middle-school students in Washington, D.C., public schools are “failing in spectacular fashion,” said Marc Fisher in Washingtonpost
.com. Only 12 percent of eighth-graders are proficient readers and only 9 percent do math at grade level. But even these appalling statistics don’t justify the “deeply cynical” pilot program to be introduced in 14 middle schools beginning in October. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee last week announced a privately subsidized $2.7 million plan “to pay D.C. middle-schoolers to attend school, behave decently, and perform in the classroom. Yes, pay them, as in cash money.” Students who meet academic, behavior, and attendance standards will collect points that can be exchanged for cash—as much as $100 per student every two weeks. I know the district is desperate, but can Rhee be serious? The assumption that poor kids are “incapable of absorbing a pure love of learning is nauseating and, yes, smacks of racial condescension.”

I’m skeptical the program will work, said Ta-Nehisi Coates in TheAtlantic.com. But spare me the moralizing of privileged critics who know nothing about the lives of students in the inner city. These kids spend much of their time trying not to get beaten up, shot, or stabbed, and come home to families in which no one is reading. You can’t escape the fact that “study habits are learned and not inbred, and that you need people around you who are interested” in your academic success. Well-to-do parents “offer rewards all the time to their kids when they do well. I don’t think it much matters that school authorities will take over that function” for parents too poor to afford it.

“Yes, it’s sad that education has come to this,” said USA Today in an editorial. “But with the right controls and safeguards,” the cash-for-grades plan deserves a chance. Similar experiments in New York City and Tucson are comparing the progress of students who get paid for performance with control groups of students receiving no such incentives, and soon, we’ll know whether these experiments work. No one is suggesting we just throw gobs of money at kids and hope for the best, said The Washington Post. So let’s skip the hysteria until the data rolls in. Given decades of academic failure under traditional schooling methods, “it would be unconscionable for educators not to explore new approaches.” At the very least, a few hardworking students may end up with the foundation of a college fund.

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