Delighted -- or Deflated -- by Dollars
D.C. Students Get First Reward Checks, but Some Come Up Short

By Bill Turque and N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 18, 2008

The District's experimental program to pay 3,300 middle school students for good grades and behavior is filled with valuable life lessons about hard work, thrift and showing up on time, its supporters say.

And on yesterday's first payday under the "Capital Gains" plan, kids at the 15 eligible schools cashed in. They earned a total of $137,813 from the initiative, a joint venture of the District and Harvard University. Students can earn a maximum of $100 every two weeks. The average award yesterday was $43.

Unfortunately, students at Shaw at Garnet-Patterson got a lesson officials hadn't planned on: Your check might not be as hefty as you expected.

Although students received credit for reaching achievement targets in reading, math and science, a computer error shorted them on attendance and behavior. Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman for Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, said the problem appeared to be unique to Shaw, but at least one other school, Whittier, also reported problems. Iverson said the students will get the money they are due in their next check.

Shaw Principal Brian Betts did his best to make it a teachable moment.

"Mr. Betts once had a job where he didn't get paid for four weeks," he told teacher Brian Diamond's sixth-grade homeroom as he distributed the checks.

Reactions varied widely, with some students bounding down the school steps on 10th Street NW near U Street, waving checks at each other and shrieking: "What d'you get? What d'you get?"

Others sat quietly and studied the pale green checks with "Harvard University" in boldface across the top. Sixth-grader Kevin Sparrow-Bey, who took in $20, said he was annoyed by the assumption that he and his classmates have to be paid to take school seriously.

"I can do the work," said Kevin, 11, who said he gets B's and C's. "It don't change nothing."

Shaw teachers and administrators said the program has had a limited impact so far: A downward spike in tardiness is the most noticeable change, but what it does to grades will take longer to determine. They also said that until yesterday, the program was pretty much an abstraction to many students. As awareness of the system spreads, officials expect the payouts to grow. By next month, the money will be electronically deposited in individual bank accounts, they said.

Betts said that when students begin to see the money every two weeks -- and the direct relationship between what they are paid and what they do in school -- the effect will be more widespread.

"That's when the power of this program will surface," Betts said.

Some students said yesterday that it had already raised the level of their academic game.

Avontae Matthews, 12, said she had worked extra hard for her $40. "I participated in all my classes -- even gym. . . . I raised my hand in social studies, and I paid more attention in math," she said.

Although in most cases the missing amounts were small, some students had been looking forward to a bigger payoff for their good work.

"I only got $10. I should have gotten way more," said Tarae Graham, 13, a seventh-grader.

"Yeah, this whole thing is really messed up," agreed Dominique Watson, 13, who received a check for $28.

One special education teacher tried to console students by telling them she was still waiting to be paid by the District for training sessions she attended over the summer.

"So we feel the same way," she said.

Capital Gains was created by Roland G. Fryer Jr., a Harvard University economist and researcher for the school's American Inequality Lab, which studies poverty and race. Fryer, who grew up poor in Daytona Beach, Fla., and dropped out of high school for a time to deal drugs, is searching for ways to close the academic achievement gap between minority and white students.

The middle school years are especially critical, Fryer and other researchers say, because it is the period when achievement often declines. Studies show that many high school dropouts actually finalize their decision to leave during middle school.

At a morning assembly in the Shaw school gym, Fryer joined Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in a kickoff ceremony, presenting a group of students with a giant ceremonial check for $4,538 -- representing the amount students had earned.

"Today is about you," Fryer said to the students, pointing to a row of television cameras. He told them "the whole world was watching" to see whether the program can work.

Half of the $2.7 million for the year-long pilot program comes from the District, and half comes from a grant to Harvard by the Broad Foundation.

School incentive programs are not new. The Dallas school system pays students to read books. Many schools, including KIPP Key Academy charter school in the District, offer fake money that can be redeemed for small gifts at a school store.

But Fryer says no one has used rigorous social science methods to determine whether incentives make a significant difference. He has launched programs similar to Capital Gains in Chicago and New York, where about 8,500 fourth- and seventh-graders are receiving cash based on standardized test scores.

His work has kindled a vigorous debate among parents and education scholars about the propriety of cash for grades. Fryer said such efforts are no silver bullet for the problems of big urban school districts. But ultimately, he said in a recent interview, progress will come in a series of small solutions, not one big fix.

Asked what they planned to do with their money, Shaw kids had every kind of answer. Jai Carson, 13, the school's star running back, said he planned to buy shoes for his cousin.

"I know some people who dropped out of school because they didn't have any money," he said.

Avontae, a seventh-grader, said she wasn't sure what she wanted to buy with the money, but she knew where she planned to spend it. "I'm going to the mall!" she announced loudly to whoops of approval from her girlfriends.

James Patterson, 14, an eighth-grader who did not get a check, said watching so many of his friends get paid made him want to try harder in school.

"I was suspended last week. But I'm definitely going to try to do good now, you know, like not talking in class," he said.

Sixth-grader Emilio Molina seemed particularly deflated as he stepped into his father's blue Toyota Corolla. For the last several weeks, he had been doing his homework with extra verve.

"He always does it," said his father, Carlos Molina. "But he was so much more enthusiastic. As soon as he'd get home, he'd be like, 'Can I use the computer?' He was so excited to earn that money."

So even though Emilio's $46 check was among the highest, it came as something of a letdown to Emilio.

"I thought it was going to be more like $100," he mumbled. Not that he plans to slack off at school now. Money has its attractions, but his true motivation is loftier, he said. "I really want to get into a good college."

Staff writers David Betancourt and Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.

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