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Our opinion on education incentives: Cash for grades? An odd idea whose time may have come.

Posted by gradefund on December 12, 2008

Our opinion on education incentives: Cash for grades? An odd idea whose time may have come.

Rewards for low-income students could level the playing field.

Prepare yourself to express moral outrage: When some students go back to school this year, they will get paid for improving their attendance, grades or test scores.

At first glance, even second glance, this seems like a terrible idea. Motives to learn should be pure and intrinsic. And if learning for the sake of learning doesn’t click, the correlation between education and income ought to be sufficient motivation. Won’t paying for grades inevitably lead to kids demanding money for, say, taking out the garbage?

Perhaps. But a careful look at the new pay plans suggests that in the right circumstances, they’re not so crazy after all.

For one thing, the experiments are financed with private — not taxpayer — money. For another, the schools where these programs are about to unfold are located in minority neighborhoods where 90% of the kids live in poverty and test scores lag far behind, such as New York’s South Bronx.

Lots of middle- and upper-income parents reward their kids for getting good grades with cash or a trip to a favorite restaurant. Those same kids also can find around them ample evidence that education pays. Their older siblings, cousins or neighbors head off to college and land good jobs.

In the poorest neighborhoods, kids see more destructive role models, and their parents lack the financial means to reward effort in school. Seen that way, offering cash for improved test scores is an attempt to replicate incentives proven to work in wealthier areas.

For the students, the cash rewards represent something more than just money. At Amphitheater High School in Tucson, where most of the students are poor and Hispanic, some students shed tears when they learned they had been selected to be part of a cash-for-grades experiment, says superintendent Vicki Balentine. It was the first time they had received a message that the outside world actually cared how they did.

At the moment, only a handful of places are trying cash-for-performance. The largest experiment, involving 70 schools in New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, starts next month. Fourth-graders who score perfectly on state exams will get $25; lower scores earn less. The cash rewards double for seventh-graders.

How the programs are structured will be as important as the monetary rewards.

For one thing, they should focus on more than just showing up. The Tucson experiment requires perfect attendance to win $25 a week, but it also requires C-averages or better and no discipline referrals. Students making the honor roll at the end of the semester can earn $100 bonuses.

Both the New York and Tucson programs have control groups of students not receiving cash rewards. Tracking both groups will show whether the experiments have short-term and long-term benefits.

And in neighborhoods where students can get rolled for lunch money, it’s important to try to ensure that the rewards stay safely with those who are earning them. New York and Tucson school officials have lined up banks willing to place direct deposits into accounts for the students. Bank officials will visit the schools to teach financial literacy.

Yes, it’s sad that education has come to this. But with the right controls and safeguards, paying for grades, crazy as it may seem, is an idea that’s worth trying.


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