Thursday, June 11, 2009

Paying Students to Learn…Another Bad Public School Policy!

One reason why in recent years there has been a proliferation of Internet blogs, talk radio/T.V. programs, and printed punditry is because there are so many bad policies either in proposal or in effect that people like myself have enough ammunition to fire off salvo after salvo of witty rebukes, cynical insights, and constructive counter-proposals well into perpetuity. Now bear witness to such an example.
Last evening, as per my normal daily routine to stay informed, I was flipping back and forth between the major networks’ evening news broadcasts. I stopped when I heard Katie Couric’s notification of an upcoming story I saw on CBS’s evening offering about paying students to learn (yeah…I did a double-take too when I heard that).

After anguishing through a plethora of commercials that revealed that there were in fact effective (if not profitable) treatments for sexual dysfunction, sleep deprivation, and migraines, I sat in absolute astonishment for the next 2 minutes and 11 seconds. I listened to the arguments—pro and con—of actually paying students to acquire basic skills necessary to function in a world where learning and knowing could literally make the difference between want and abundance, knowledge and ignorance, or life and death.

I had heard about the idea before, but still, I decided to watch the story with an open mind. After viewing this story, I decided to acquaint myself more background information about this notion of paying students to learn. What I learned was that it’s not just a “New York City” thing.
From Georgia, to Illinois, to Texas, many school districts are preparing or have started pilot programs that either pay students to get high test scores which (theoretically) reflect learning and retaining lessons taught, or to attend school and/or other academic-based programs.
The idea has more than it’s fair share of proponents, liberal, moderate, and conservative alike-- one of them being the former U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives, Republican Newt Gingrich (if you don’t believe me, please refer to Mr. Gingrich’s very own website,
Last year, two Georgia schools began studying the measurable outcomes (academically) of a 15-week pilot program that pays students $8 an hour to attend math and science tutoring for 4 hours a week. Also in 2008, the Chicago Public Schools paid more than 1,600 students to get good grades. As reported in the Chicago Tribune in October of last year,

…1,650 Chicago Public Schools students [cashed] in on a new district program offering money to freshmen at 20 schools for getting top—and even average—grades in five core subjects including math, English and science. District officials said students earned $265,986 this time, with the money coming from a Harvard University education research laboratory and private donations.

The arguments in favor of the idea are many. They range from idea that the increased grades spurred by payments serve as self-esteem boosters for students in low-performing districts, to preventing students from dropping out of school to work minimum-wage jobs in lieu of studying by giving them an immediate payoff to hard work.
From what I’ve read in and around the blogsphere and Internet news sites, most have come down on the side of sanity on this issue; it’s a philosophically and pragmatically insane idea. First, it undermines the ability to tell good teachers and administrators—those capable of actually motivating their students to learn—from those who are just trying to survive their post-honeymoon periods as teachers, and are merely holding on until retirement.
Second, it commandeers the responsibility of a child’s first and primary (at least supposedly) educators, their parents. Public schools should be a supplement for an education that a student is supposed to receive at home. Concepts such as manners, the instilment and understanding of rules, structure, respect for authority, and (insert gasp here) the value of performing to the best of one’s abilities for the sake of expanding one boundaries and to promote personal growth (and on this point, if a parent can teach the child that for most things, there is not always an immediate payoff, so much more the better for society as a whole).
Third, the money to fund such programs overwhelmingly comes from private donations and other like contributors. What happens when the money runs out? Do already cash-strapped school districts decide to use already limited funds to continue the programs, or do we watch as our kids must suddenly go cold turkey to their addiction to getting paid to for learning (come to think of it, such a prospect could conceivably teach our kids about the dangers of addiction)? There is a great deal of research that indicates that tangible evidence undermines intrinsic motivation.
Lastly, it does nothing to help dispel the globally-held belief that Americans are a people motivated simply by love of money. And to use money as a tool to motivate our youngest citizens to learn can’t possibly do anything to weaken that notion. It seems that if money were the answer, we wouldn’t have a problem with poor academic performance in the first place. How else can one explain the fact that American public school students have for years continually poorly when compared to students from countries that spend a lot less on their public school students, and who have stronger curriculums?
Now, ready for some common sense solutions? How about parents stop using the lack of time, scheduling conflicts, misplaced priorities and other such nonsense as excuses for failing to promote their children’s academic well-beings. If parents have the time to procreate them, then they have the time to raise their children. Working to pay bills is not an acceptable excuse for a parent’s failure to be actively involved with their children, which means it’s not up to television, the Internet, or computer programs to either baby-sit or help them with their homework (at least not solely). And on that note, it’s in our children’s interests for parents to be educated themselves. For adults to bring children into the world without the benefit of knowing enough about the world themselves so that they can prepare their children adequately is the height of irresponsibility! A parent should have, at the very least, a high school education—every bit of research supports the conventional wisdom that education and parental involvement are two of the biggest contributing factors to a child’s overall life chances (while I freely admit my belief that America will never totally be a society of “equal opportunity,” I am of the mindset that there are things we can so to limit inequalities).
How about we abandon this absurd notion of paying children to learn? Paying students for academic performance undermines the idea of a meritocracy—an already questionable concept even under the traditional course upward mobility—predicated on finding and shaping the best and the brightest. Consider our leaders and potential leaders; President Barack Obama and Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor both have compelling life narratives which would be less inspiring to those who would emulate their success if money were their chief motivations for succeeding.
And if are going to make it a policy of paying students for attending school and exceeding their own expectations by way of bribery, why stop there? Why don’t we pay them to not do drugs? Just as we pay them to obtain a certain number of A or B’s, we could pay them by the number of times they say “no” whenever they are asked if they want to “take a hit.” And why not pay them to play sports, abstain from sex, and even for not texting while driving. The point is that most of us belonging to certain age groups, namely Baby Boomers and their children, Generation Xers, did what we were supposed to do because it was simply the right thing to do…not because we were bribed to do so. We were not motivated to excel or be better individuals simply because someone offered us money…we did so because we wanted a better standard of living than our parents, and realized that the only way to obtain more was to do better and be better than they were. If we have to bribe our children to simply learn to push themselves past all social, economic, and personal expectations, then we cannot blame them…the fault lies with the adults. We have only ourselves to blame if our children have lost their motivation to learn and excel for the sake of learning and exceling. Maybe someone should pay us to be more responsible adults…maybe then we will raise students.


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