“The king will answer them saying, ‘I tell you with certainty, since you did it for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me’.”
Matthew 25:40 (International Standard Version)
I heard on the news the other day that one of our Texas state lawmakers, Joe Deshotel from Beaumont, filed a bill recently that would create a pilot program designed to pay cash to students at low-performing schools for good grades in core subjects. I was not surprised to read in the Ft. Worth Star Telegram that Representative Deshotel is a Democrat.
According to the article, under Deshotel’s plan, freshmen could earn $50 for each “A,” $35 for each “B,” and $20 for each “C” in English, math, science or social studies. They would get half their money at the end of each grading period and the other half at graduation. They would also receive college and career counseling through the program. Funding would come from $6 billion in federal stimulus money the state is planning to use on education. The article did not include an estimate for the program’s cost – but it did initiate an interesting debate in our household. The issues discussed by my wife and me were: Would such a program work at all? Would it or could it be administered fairly? And what would the long-term effects be? Would students become dependent on near-term rewards, less able to postpone gratification as adults?
I admitted to my wife and I admit to you now that I don’t know the answers. But, as a teacher of economics for senior high students and as a parent of three grown sons, I am keenly aware of the critical need that young people have for near-term incentives. That’s why in the classroom I sometimes reward my students with small treats, Hersey kisses and various other small candies when they are able to answer review questions correctly. They seem to get a kick out of the competition for rewards — it makes it more like a game, and kids love games. If they offer a second correct answer when nobody else’s hand goes up, I encourage them to share their second treat with another student so that nobody gets left out and so that nobody gets too much sugar. Controversial? Yes, but it really seems to stimulate interest and motivate students to participate. And after seven years of teaching, no parent has ever objected. Praise may be enough for some, but certainly not enough for all, especially for those in class who are more academically challenged and seldom experience it.
Although my wife and I could have done so, we never offered our boys monetary rewards for good grades. Some of our friends did though and, as I think back about it, their kids always seemed to do well while ours, despite their intelligence and abilities, passed with mediocre grades and sometimes failed. Hmmm…. we praised them when they did well, sure, and admonished them when they didn’t. But I suspect now that we’d have done far better as parents to give the pay for good grades idea a try. Many parents, especially in this economy, don’t have the means and so, don’t have a choice.
There are pay-for-grades programs in place in Chicago, Baltimore, New York, Tucson, and Washington D.C. – I remember reading about Mayor Bloomberg initiating a pilot program with his own money a couple of years ago for kids from poor families in underperforming schools in New York. I’d be interested to know just how it and like-programs in other cities have been working — I haven’t heard, nor have I found conclusive study results. I’ve searched the Internet for answers finding studies and arguments both pro and con. The studies, however, all seem to have been planned and conducted to confirm biases already held.
According to an August 2008 USA TODAY article, a Harvard economist, Roland Fryer, who serves as the New York City Schools’ chief equality officer, came up with the idea two years ago while trying to figure out how to make school “tangible” for disadvantaged kids, kids who have few successful role models. “I just thought that giving them some short-term incentives to do what’s in their long-term best interests would be a good way to go. The two-year old New York City experiment pays students monthly to do their best on skills tests, and it has been making a difference. “While teachers talk about success,” Mr. Fryer said, “it’s not enough to tell a kid that, in the long term, hard work will pay off. We’re asking them to look down a path that they have probably never seen anyone go down … and then to have the wisdom and the fortitude to wait for their reward.”
Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College according to and article in the AP Texas News, cronical.com, has said, “There is no strong research to show the incentives work, and some research shows such incentives can lead students to underperform,” said Barry Schwartz, who has spoken out against paying students for grades. “The downside to this is being ignored by those who support it,” he said, “which is that once kids become accustomed to this, they become dependent. They’ll want someone walking behind them the rest of their lives with an M&M to make sure they are rewarded for everything they do.”
So, okay, the pay-for-grades idea may be dumb. On the other hand, it might just be brilliant. Put five economists, or educators for that matter, in a room and they’ll come up with six different answers to a problem.
Spending our education stimulus money on higher teachers’ salaries won’t make much difference, I don’t think, at least in the near-term. Teach as hard as you can and as good as you can, the student who isn’t motivated to learn is still going to drop out. And sprucing up facilities with a fresh coat of paint or buying more computers won’t do much toward motivating the marginal students, the ones we’re losing in Texas by the groves. That’s where the real problem is. It isn’t with the middle class students whose families would pull them out of our public schools if only they were just a little bit more well-to-do. So please don’t anybody suggest the money should go to vouchers. Therefore, I think we ought to give the congressman’s proposal a fair try. It just feels like the Christian thing to do. His plan, after all, according to the Ft. Worth Star Telegram article, is a pilot program only, intended for high school freshman in underperforming schools so that we can gauge the worthiness of the idea. “If it does help cut down the dropout rate, which is unacceptably high in Texas,” said Deshotel, “then we can look at expanding it.”
Despite my reasoning, my guess is that the Republican-led congress in Austin won’t spend much time debating this.
Wha’da y’all think? I invite your comments, regardless of your politics.