Wednesday, August 08, 2007

More on paying students to perform

The New York Times has a good article about that city's idea of paying low-income students for good scores on tests. The article is written by Joseph Berger, and I think he does a good job covering different sides of the issue.

On the one hand:

Suzanne Windland, a homeowner raising three children in a placid enclave of eastern Queens, doesn’t (like the idea). Her seventh grader, Alexandra, she said, had perfect scores last year. But she doesn’t want New York City’s Department of Education to hand her $500 in spending cash for that achievement. That’s what Alexandra would earn if her school was part of a pilot program that will reward fourth and seventh graders with $100 to $500, depending on how well they perform on 10 tests in the next year.

Mrs. Windland wants Alexandra to do well for all the timeless reasons — to cultivate a love of learning, advance to more competitive schools and the like. She has on occasion bought her children toys or taken them out for dinner when they brought home pleasurable report cards, but she does not believe in dangling rewards beforehand.

“It’s like giving kids an allowance because they wake up every morning and brush their teeth and go off to school,” she said. “That’s their job. That’s what they’re supposed to be doing.”

Actually, Alexandra will probably not be eligible for the reward because the program, which has been adapted from a similar Mexican cash incentives plan, is aimed largely at schools with students from low-income families. Mrs. Windland, who grew up for a time on food stamps but now works as coordinator of volunteers for a social services agency, thinks it is unfair that Alexandra will see other seventh graders being rewarded for far lower scores, while she savors only the intangible plums of pride and satisfaction.

I can't argue with anything Mrs. Windland says here, and she sounds like a wonderful parent. She sounds like the kind of parent that teachers dream of, and I think we should be doing everything we can to encourage more parents to be like her. The problem is that there are a lot of parents who aren't like her. There are a lot of parents who give their kids no support whatsoever when it comes to education, and that is the problem. What can we do to motivate those kids?

Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein responds to skeptics by arguing that no one has figured out how to get more poorer children engaged in learning. Trumpeting the long-term benefits of education, the better jobs and lives well lived has not worked. Cash just might.

“There are lots of kids who think education is not relevant to them, who think education is a waste of time,” he said in an interview.


Sol Stern, a well-known writer on education issues, is also critical of the program. He suggests putting the money into college funds instead of paying "instant cash." His idea sounds similar to what a leading businessman did in our town, and that is a great idea--for working class and lower-middle class kids in Warroad. I don't think it's such a hot idea for low-income kids in New York City. As Klein implied in his statement, the kids the "cash program" is meant to motivate are not kids who respond to incentives that will pay off five or ten years from now.

The dismal performance of low income kids in our urban areas is a huge problem in our education system, and it is not going to go away by itself. While I am not enthusiastic about New York's cash for performance program, I can't knock it, because there aren't exactly a lot of promising ideas out there for dealing with it.

I think there are good arguments on both sides of this issue, and there were a lot of intelligent statements in this article. But the one I most agreed with was made by Nakida Chambers-Camille, who is a school administrative assistant.

Ms. Chambers-Camille has a seventh grader, Leana, at a school that probably won’t qualify. Leana, she chuckled, may think that is unfair. But Ms. Camille believes such sweeteners may ultimately benefit her daughter. “If that’s going to help the child my child is playing with, then I’m all for it,” she said. “I want my child associating with people who have education as a priority. If that child is not learning, that child will pull my child down with her.”


Ms. Chambers-Camille understands the effect that kids have on other kids. If policy-makers figured that out, we'd be a lot farther along toward solving the problems of low-income kids in urban schools.

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