Monday, March 23, 2009

Paying poor kids to improve

Washington D.C. has a program that offers cash incentives to kids who "go to class, get good grades, and behave."

It is a system that Roland Fryer, who grew up poor and became an "assistant professor of economics at Harvard before he was 30," created. Fryer believes that paying kids for grades incentivizes them to do well. Dallas also has a program initiated by Fryer, Earning by Learning, that pays kids to read books.

I'm not yet convinced by the program. I am of the camp that believes learning should be it's own internal reward. I admit that belief biases my concerns. However, my concerns do go beyond learning-for-learning's-sake.

As the Washington Post article mentions, "Payments have been inconsistent, Woods said, even as the program calls for consistently good behavior. One afternoon late last month, D'Angelo and his brother Kyree, both sixth-graders, received their money. But their sister Diamond did not."

Schools are not set up to pay students like McDonald's pays employees. Therefore, there are not consequences to the school when they don't pay a child on time or if they somehow overlook the child's "paycheck." The potential for inconsistency is not fair to the child and could de-incentivize.

Some students "pour water on their checks if they are too low, saturating them until they fall apart."

The check is the end of the incentive. There is no financial literacy program that helps the kids understand that saving even a little money can add up, create a savings account, or understand the difference between cashing a check at a check-cashing place for $2 or cashing it at your bank for free.

One of the teachers' asked, "What happens when the money dries up?"

This is a major issue. I have seen a lot of wealthy people and groups come into the inner city and make big "forever" promises...usually financially based--football fields, college scholarships, school supplies, food--and they *all* disappear. In my 13 years, despite fists banging on the table declaring, "WE WILL NOT LEAVE!" I have not yet seen one who has made these big promises stick around for the long haul. Relying on someone else's money is not sustainable. Funding goes away. The need for education doesn't. Paying kids $2 to read a book (but only up to a limited number) either pays the kids who are already reading or pays kids to read and creates a system where the reading stops when the money's gone.

The former principal of the school commented, "There's just not a belief from everybody that this can work, that you can help these students to bring out their greatness," Students, she said, "have to see that people care about their success."

Seeing that people care may be part of the issue. But caring about kids' grades is not going to solve the problem if the kids are not being taught well. Caring is not going to help if grades are inflated to make students feel better about their work. We must do more to make sure kids are learning the material. Oftentimes kids hate to read because they are in upper-elementary and still struggle to read a picture book. Paying them to read does not make reading easier for them. Instead, it can cause more frustreation because they don't have the same opportunity as other kids to earn the money.

Instead of using monetary incentives, why not invest that money in struggling school systems that are cutting back on teachers and other educational opportunities? Why not look toward our future and invest money in teaching technology and making learning opportunities more interesting? In my mind, bribing the kids is not the way to go. Innovative teaching and ensuring kids learn is the long-term solution.
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