D.C. Tries Cash as a Motivator In School

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee will select the middle schools to participate in the pilot program.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee will select the middle schools to participate in the pilot program. (By Susan Walsh -- Associated Press)
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By V. Dion Haynes and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 22, 2008

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee announced plans yesterday to boost dismal achievement at half the city's middle schools by offering students an unusual incentive: cash.

For years, school officials have used detention, remedial classes, summer school and suspensions to turn around poorly behaved, underachieving middle school students, with little results. Now they are introducing a program that will pay students up to $100 per month for displaying good behavior.

Beginning in October, 3,000 students at 14 middle schools will be eligible to earn up to 50 points per month and be paid $2 per point for attending class regularly and on time, turning in homework, displaying manners and earning high marks. A maximum of $2.7 million has been set aside for the program, and the money students earn will be deposited every two weeks into bank accounts the system plans to open for them.

The system has 28 middle-grade schools. Rhee will select the schools to participate in the pilot program.

"We believe this is the time for radical intervention," Rhee said at a news conference outside Hardy Middle School in Northwest Washington. "We're very excited about this particular program."

Costs of the incentive will be split almost equally between the school system and Harvard's American Inequity Lab, which studies poverty and race issues. The program, Capital Gains, will be run by Roland G. Fryer Jr., an economics professor with the lab. Fryer also operates a pilot program in New York City public schools.

In justifying the program, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said the city has spent an inordinate amount on a school bureaucracy over the years that has failed students. Instead, he said, why not direct some of the cash to the students.

"If it seems outside of the box, it is," Fenty said.

A cash-incentive program that pays high school students as much as $500 for earning a 3 or more on an Advanced Placement test has been launched in Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Kentucky and Virginia.

A study of the program released yesterday by a Cornell University economist said the incentive resulted in higher scores and an increase in the number of students attending college.

Alfie Kohn, an independent researcher whose book, "Punished by Rewards," details the downside of such programs, said incentives "undermine the very thing you're trying to promote by getting them hooked on the rewards."

Rhee said she is targeting sixth- through eighth-graders because some students in the group typically have had intractable behavior and academic problems. She said middle school is a pivotal time because many students are setting the patterns to become high school scholars or dropouts.

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