Education: Adding It Up (2 + 2 = $)

They’ve tried it in Dallas, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. among other places. The results have been mixed at best. Overall, in this writer’s view, there’s something that just doesn’t feel right.

It, in this case, is paying students for academic performance. And it, in this case, adds the twist of rewarding parents with cold, hard cash if their kids pass certain math tests and if the parents go "above and beyond" by attending conferences with teachers.

Shouldn’t parents already have an interest in the education progress of their offspring? Shouldn’t students take the responsibility, with the help of their parents, to try and perform to the best of their abilities? I know the answer and also realize what should happen doesn’t happen all the time. But high expectations, in my opinion, instead of high rewards, would yield more productive results.

Your thoughts? Here’s an excerpt from the Houston Chronicle:

The Houston school board signed off Thursday on the $1.5 million program, which is funded by the Dallas-based Liemandt Foundation. The incentives will go to students and parents at 25 elementary schools that rank among the lowest in math achievement.

The pilot program — thought to be the first that offers joint incentives for parents and students — will allow fifth-graders to earn up to $440 for passing short math tests that show they have mastered key concepts, according to the draft proposal. Parents will get slightly less money for their children doing the work, and they can earn an extra $180 for attending nine conferences with teachers to review the youngsters’ progress.

Combined, the students and their parents can pocket $1,020.

Parents can opt out of the pay program, which also is expected to include money for teachers – up to $40 per student – for holding the parent conferences. The Houston Independent School District already has the nation’s largest program that rewards teachers and school staff for boosting students’ scores on standardized tests.

Nationwide, public support is low for school districts paying students for specific behaviors, such as reading books, attending class or getting good grades, according to the 2010 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll. About one in four Americans favor the idea. A similar number said they had paid their own children for academic accomplishments.

The Houston program appears to be based on the Dallas work. Second-graders in Dallas were paid $2 for each book they read once they passed a simple quiz to confirm they had done the reading. A study found that the students who were promised money improved in reading comprehension and language more than those who weren’t offered the reward.

The idea of paying parents intrigues Dan Ariely, a Duke University professor who studies human behavior, but he said he expects little long-term benefit from the cash rewards for students.

"The parents actually have some control over the kids," he said. "They can tell the kids to study."

For the students, he said, the monetary incentive will do nothing to instill in them a love of learning. "What is questionable is whether you could create short-term learning or not," he added. 

Paying to Get the Students to Play

The blame for lack of student achievement typically falls in a few different camps. Ineffective teachers, administrations hamstrung by union rules, society in the form of a poor learning environment, parents that don’t emphasize education and sometimes even the young people themselves are held accountable.

In the past few years, some school districts have tried bribery as a partial solution. That is payment in cash or prizes to students for good grades, high test scores or merely showing up for class. My opinion aligned with the majority in stating that this was a serious misuse of funds. I honestly don’t know whether there has been any substantive study of the results of those efforts.

Now, the Houston public school system is preparing to offer payments to struggling students in the lowest-performing schools if they show up for Saturday tutoring sessions. Another "throw money at the problem and let’s see what happens" scenario. Maybe not in this case.

In addition to the extra weekend help (the superintendent equates the payment to a job as many of these students must work to support their families), the school district is implementing other meaningful reforms that include:

  • Extending the school year and day
  • Giving students who are performing below grade level a "double dose" of math and English
  • Removing ineffective teachers and principals
  • Students and parents signing performance contracts (a strategy employed by some successful charter schools)

It might be categorized as a desperate measure to pay students $30 a tutoring session (with free breakfast and lunch). But it’s not taking place in isolation and if some of the other reforms are successful, maybe getting students in the door will lead to improved results. Hopefully.

The Houston Chronicle has more here.

Pay to Learn: Which Side are You On?

Education reform is a good thing. Trying new things when the same old efforts fail generally makes a lot of sense. Innovation to improve student performance and graduation rates is something to applaud — for the most part.

But what about paying students for their accomplishments? Not pizza parties and "no homework for a day" passes, but cell phones and cold, hard cash. Below are two excerpts from a Governing magazine article. It’s an interesting read. Personally, I fall much closer to the second camp and give the programs under way in some big cities "A’s" for intentions and much lower scores for fairness and long-term impact.

“It’s been outstanding for us,” says Laverne Nimmons, the principal of P.S. 335. “The students took to it immediately.” Nimmons sees cash incentives not only as an academic motivator for students but also a ticket out of poverty. “When you get into wealthier, upper-middle class families, you get parents who reward their children for good grades. They pay for after-school programs or private tutors to help improve their grades.” Those are luxuries that Nimmons’ students can’t afford. “These are children in an impoverished community. There are no rewards. With this program, we’re just trying to create a level playing field.”

Opponents of incentives programs, including experts in education and child psychology, say bonus money won’t change students’ study habits in any lasting way. In fact, they argue, the incentives may backfire and hurt student performance in the long run. Others are simply uncomfortable with the social implications of paying some students to learn but not others. “It becomes a condescending situation,” says Heather MacDonald, an author who has written about education for the Manhattan Institute. “I just find it troubling that half of society is paying the other half to do something the first half already knows it should be doing. Who is in the paying class and who is in the paid class? How do you explain to one group of students that they should value education for its own sake while some of their classmates are getting money for the exact same thing?” 

Innovation in Education Gone Awry

An oft-used unofficial definition of insanity: doing things the same way over and over and expecting different results. Some say that applies to education improvement efforts.

The following qualifies as "doing it differently" but falls way short of positive innovation. We’re talking about the initiative to pay students who show up for school, behave and do better on their test scores. The lineup of opponents to this ill-conceived strategy is long and vocal.

Stafford Palmieri of the Fordham Institute writes: "Higher standards, better teachers, and more tests are not the solution here. We need to teach our children that pulling an all nighter may be worth the temporary discomfort or that missing an episode of Project Runway is worth it to finish their math homework. That starts with parents. So here’s another great question: How are we going to get parents to start teaching their children to respect education?"

Diane Ravitch offers a Forbes op-ed here that closes with the following: "Interesting, isn’t it, that while students in other countries are paying $1,500 a year for the chance to learn more, many American students will be paid that same amount just to do what they ought to be doing in their own self-interest?

Does the future belong to those who struggle to better themselves, make sacrifices to do so and work hard? Or to those who must be cajoled and bribed to learn anything at all?"

Go Stafford and Diane. Where do you fall on paying kids to do what they’re supposed to be doing away?