- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2008




You’ve perhaps heard about this once-musty, now-renascent K-12 education idea to pay pupils for their right behavior. That is, if a youngster shows up to class, acts decorously while there, and completes his schoolwork, he should, some say, be financially compensated for his diligence. The thinking is that those students who do not show up to school, who do not study, will be motivated to correct their actions by promises of cash.

Washington is but the latest to hop upon this bandwagon. The city’s schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, has just partnered with Harvard economist Roland Fryer to run a pay-kids-for-doing-right program in the nation’s capital. Mr. Fryer already manages something similar in New York City, and he’s peddled the concept to sundry other municipalities, too. But the problems with paying pupils are legion. To start, nobody is at all sure if it will actually work. Mr. Fryer has himself said that “the jury is still out” about whether cash incentives cause middling pupils to improve.

Mr. Fryer and Mrs. Rhee are therefore essentially conducting in D.C. public schools an experiment without fretting over much about the unintended consequences they may induce. So mesmerized are they by visions of increasing test scores that they’ve forgotten that schools must also teach students about personal responsibility, delaying gratification, planning for the future, and learning’s intrinsic value.

What sort of unintended consequences might this experiment yield? Here’s but one: Think of the parents who, rather than exert strong discipline over their vegetable-averse child, pay him $100 each month to choke down his brussel sprouts. It’s a safe bet that they will create a rules-shirking monster and one who will learn nothing important and enduring about nutrition, behavior, obedience, personal responsibility, or authority.

Similar monsters are birthed through an educating strategy that pays pupils to do that which is legitimately expected of them.

Furthermore, we ought not ignore the rather noxious supposition that seems to undergird Washington, D.C.’s new bribery-based approach to teaching and learning. It is this: Certain low-income, minority pupils are beyond hope and will attend class and study only when showered with money for so doing. Mrs. Rhee does not believe this. Neither does Mr. Fryer. But this is nonetheless the message that their actions communicate.

That low-income, minority students are beyond hope is, of course, a hurtful lie. In a book, Sweating the Small Stuff, just published by my organization, reporter David Whitman profiles six schools (four of them are charter schools) that enroll poor, black and Hispanic pupils and that consistently post top-notch scores on standardized tests and see significant numbers of their graduates attend college. How do they do it? Not through cash-based bribery, for sure (although several do find other ways to reward the good behavior they already demand.) These schools operate under a philosophy that Mr. Whitman calls a “new paternalism” - i.e., a paternalism shorn of its old and unfortunate connotations.

Mr. Whitman writes that the schools he profiles “unapologetically tell children continually what is good for them.” They demand at all times that their students act respectfully, sit up straight, make eye contact, look presentable, work hard, and exercise self-discipline and self-restraint. They teach math lessons, certainly, but they teach much-needed life lessons, too.

And yet, these are precisely the lessons that Mr. Rhee’s plan will completely undercut. When correct behavior is rewarded with cash, standards take a prima facie tumble. The student who shunned class is paid to be there, which makes a mockery of the rules, and the pupil who already came to school on time now receives money for it and learns the false lesson that punctuality and conscientiousness are extraordinary and noteworthy.

If D.C. schools are to improve, their leaders might learn from the successful charter schools in their midst. Over 30 percent of the city’s public school pupils are now enrolled in charter schools, many of which offer a rigorous education free from unnecessary, bureaucratic encumbrances.

The best of these schools share certain features. Most notable is their “no excuses” attitude. They are unconcerned about the socioeconomics and races of those they educate - they make no excuses. And they are certainly unconcerned about whether pupils find their educational methods too tough or rough - they make no excuses, and students who don’t follow the rules, far from being paid, are disciplined and in some instances expelled.

That is what urban, public-school success looks like. And it doesn’t involve bribing pupils to do what’s right.

Liam Julian is associate writer and editor at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

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