2008-09-11 / View From the Middle

View From The Middle

If The Kid Can't Pass The Test, Give Him Money; That'll Do It!
By Charles Rogers


Some called it bribery; others called it reverse extortion and still others said it was downright stupid when, early this year, about 60 schools took part in a program where some students would get paid with real, live cash money for passing certain exams and doing well in school.

That's right. They were getting paid — not with a gold medal or a trophy or certificate, but real U.S. currency. Imagine! Actually telling precocious (or non-precocious) kids they'd receive such-and-such amount of money if he or she passes a test. All the little person had to do was study a little bit, get at least a D, or 60% or, in any case, pass by the skin of his teeth, and the school principal would reach into her pocketbook, pull out a stash of money (used just for that purpose), peel off a double sawbuck (that's a $20 bill) and say to the student, "Here, kid. Ya done good. Now do it again and again and again and you'll become a zillionaire."

There were questions at first as to whether giving a student money — or anything at all — for doing well on a test would be a good idea. Some said yes, some no. Some intimated that it was good because of the motivation factor: After all, in today's economy, with jobs being at a premium and money tighter than ever, some of that green stuff went right into the family coffer for bread and milk and necessities that would not otherwise be available, or reachable. Mind you, the gift was not any huge amount, but at least enough to be even a mild incentive of sorts. Most of the time, if it was a low amount ($20 or $30), the kids themselves would keep it for spending money at the mall; or maybe put it away for a pair of Nike sneakers.

Some members of the Department of Education said they felt the plan was too controversial inasmuch as the teachers and administrators had been building a culture where the incentive for doing hard work would not be money, but the success factor itself: You work hard and you'll be successful. Period. However, one principal was quoted as saying the program did bring more students into the program; more students who were interested in learning, even if the incentive was the almighty dollar.

According to some reports, a few kids were receiving $100 to $150 or more for doing the right thing. That's good enough to make me want to return to school (not that I'd even pass the tests). Most officials, including Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said, however, that they agreed to use it as a pilot program for a couple of years — providing the incentive money came from private sources, like the billionaire mayor himself, and not from the pockets of the taxpayers. Later, if it seemed to be highly —HIGHLY — successful, there would be either a referendum or a City Council vote or some such thing to make it official. Hey, the city schools needed to try something, anything, to get kids off the "I don' wanna work" idiom and onto a more success-oriented line of thinking.

Except; except....it didn't work.

After a year of trying — and spending — it looks like the Study for Dollars game show didn't work. Apparently, the designated schools where youngsters got paid for passing the tests wound up failing more students than in the previous year — by three percent. That's a lot, when you think of what the program could cost over, say, a ten-year span.

We don't know whether they're going to continue the plan this year. After all, they agreed to go through with it for two years originally. And who knows? Maybe it will work next year (and maybe not). Frankly, if there is a referendum, I don't think the public will vote for it; nor the City Council. Besides, where will the money eventually come from? We couldn't depend on the mayor and his friends forever!

Another stopgap is the incentive of those students who didn't need an outside stimulus. Remember, this program targeted poor families and students, as well as those who apparently needed some kind of tangible reward if they'd meet certain goals. But what about the reward of being educated? What about those whose parents instilled in them the desire to ingest the experience of learning for learning's sake; of improving their minds? What about those who studied the night before a test because they wanted to pass it — and for no other reason? It must have been, at the least, debilitating when they discovered the person in the next desk was being paid — bribed — by the Department of Education for doing the same work.

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