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Bribery or Motivation?
Let's give cash incentives for D.C. middle school students a chance.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

IN A PERFECT world, children clamor to go to school for the sheer exhilaration of learning. No one is ever late, homework is always completed on time, and everyone knows that success in the classroom can mean success in life. A starkly different world exists for many D.C. children, and too often the reality is one of failure. It is therefore worth exploring whether different incentives -- even an unorthodox offer of cash -- can motivate students to excel.

Last week, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee unveiled a pilot program in which middle school students will be paid to meet academic and behavioral goals. Starting in October, 3,000 students -- half of the middle school population -- will be able to earn as much as $100 every two weeks (officials expect the average will be $50 every two weeks) as part of a $2.7 million program being offered with Harvard University.

Announcement of the program was met with predictable, even hysterical, criticism. It's bribing children to learn! It's patronizing -- and racist -- to suggest that African American children must be paid to go to school! The results won't last! There could well be shortcomings, but, as we asked when the city of Baltimore started a similar program last semester, what's the harm in trying something that just might work? Decades of traditional methods have failed to drive up the achievement of most low-income students. Considering that only about a third of D.C. eighth-graders are proficient in math or reading, it would be unconscionable for educators not to explore new approaches. Much thought went into the program's design, with officials targeting the vulnerable middle grades as well as wisely giving parents the right to opt out.

The goal makes sense: to provide tangible rewards to students who may dismiss school as irrelevant to their lives. Harvard economics professor Roland G. Fryer Jr., who will run the program, says it is easy for middle- and upper-class students to see the benefits of education; they experience the comforts on a daily basis. Not so poor students. Indeed, one could argue that middle- and upper-class students are already being bribed, to use the phrase of critics, when A's on their report cards are rewarded with dinners out, cars and even trips abroad.

The program's effectiveness will have to be carefully studied. In the meantime, useful data will be generated and provided to the schools. Principals, for instance, will know -- every two weeks -- which students aren't showing up for class or handing in homework. Schools will be able to customize goals unique to their needs. Students will get real-life experience in fiscal literacy as money is deposited in bank accounts opened in their names. For some, that could be the start of a college fund.

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