By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Brian Betts, principal of Shaw at Garnet-Patterson Middle School, said he knew that the experimental program to pay cash for good grades and behavior, which began yesterday at 15 D.C. schools, had captured his students' imaginations when they began asking about the economic crisis.
" 'I heard about this banking stuff,' " Betts recalled one saying the other day. " 'Are we still going to have this money?' "
The answer is yes. The Northwest Washington school's 307 students are among the roughly 3,000 middle-schoolers eligible to earn as much as $100 every two weeks -- to a maximum of $1,500 for the academic year -- for showing up on time, not disrupting class and getting high grades.
Students have been buzzing about the pilot program, called Capital Gains, since they learned in late August that their school had been selected. The school now includes students from Shaw, which closed in June.
Some have already identified the weaknesses they'll need to correct in order to cash in. Jai Carson, 13, said he'll need to focus more on his eighth-grade history class. Dominique Watson, also 13 and an eighth-grader, said she'll have to cut down on the classroom banter.
"Personally, for me, I like to talk a lot," she said. "So I'll have to kind of tone that down."
Capital Gains is the creation of Roland G. Fryer Jr., a Harvard University economist and principal investigator for the university's American Inequality Lab, which studies issues of poverty and race. Fryer is searching for ways to close the academic achievement gap that separates white and minority children.
Fryer and other educators have been searching, in particular, for ways to inspire students in their middle-school years, where achievement often spirals downward. Research shows that many high school dropouts actually crystallize their decision to leave while in middle school.
Fryer has launched similar programs in Chicago and New York, where about 8,500 fourth- and seventh-graders are getting cash awards based on standardized test scores. Although he has touched off a national debate about the propriety of paying students for performance, he has said that these incentive programs are not a solution for the achievement gap and that they may prove to be ineffective when the data are analyzed. But he said it is important to find ways for children to learn that academic achievement also has short-term and tangible rewards.
Anita Walls, a 14-year veteran of the D.C. schools system who teaches eighth-grade English, said any doubts she had were erased when she saw her students' smiles. They view it as the first time that someone took them seriously enough to reward their efforts, she said.
And, yes, students can rest easy. The $2.7 million for the program has already been set aside, half coming from the District and the rest from a grant to Harvard by the Broad Foundation.
Those who forgot that yesterday was day one picked up on it quickly. In Meredith Leonard's sixth-grade English class, there was the usual low-level din until she issued the reminder.
Silence blanketed the room, she said. "Everybody was in awe."
Under Capital Gains, every two weeks, students will be scored on 10-point scales according to a series of performance indicators. All schools in the program are required to review behavior and attendance, which means showing up on time for every class. Individual schools can choose other criteria, including grades, homework, class participation and adherence to the dress code. Each point is worth $2.
Betts said his staff will focus on grades in math, science, social studies and English. Every two weeks, staff will average a student's grades in those courses to derive a point total on a scale they determine, for instance, zero points for 75 or less, five points for 83 to 85, etc.
For the first two pay periods, beginning Oct. 17, checks will be distributed by school staff. Later, they will be deposited directly into student-owned savings accounts at SunTrust Bank. Students will be able to access the money with or without their parents, and no one can withdraw money without the child, officials said.
Each school has a program coordinator, officials said, who will be responsible for ensuring that no student withdraws money under duress. "We can arrange for appropriate responses on a case-by-case basis," said Dena Iverson, spokeswoman for Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.
Betts and his staff did a two-week trial run this month to give teachers practice with the scoring system and to give students an idea of what would be expected to earn points. He said that the sixth- and seventh-graders were "right into it" and that attendance and punctuality ticked up. Grades did not.
Eighth-graders, he said, are "crafty folk" and are likely to wait until the program ramps up before they make many changes. "They're like 'Jerry Maguire': 'Show me the money,' " he said.