Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Cash for Good Grades

Some high school students in Chicago will be earning cash rewards for good grades this fall. The program, called Green for Grades, is targeted to 5000 freshmen at 20 CPS high schools with very high poverty rates. It's funded by private donations, not tax dollars.
Students will be measured every five weeks in math, English, social sciences, science and physical education. An A nets $50, a B equals $35 and a C still brings in $20. Students will get half the money upfront, with the remainder paid upon graduation. A straight-A student could earn up to $4,000 by the end of his or her sophomore year. ("Earn An A? Here's $50." Chicago Tribune, September 11, 2008)
The kids will get half of the money up front, and the rest upon graduation from high school--providing further incentive to stay in school and get that diploma.

I know what you're thinking, but HOLD YOUR HORSES, THERE, KEMOSABE. Try to stop your eyes from rolling into the back of your head, and keep reading.

Many Chicagoans are irate about this program as though the schools are giving away their own hard-earned money instead of (probably) Oprah's. They're irked because the students don't want to learn just for the sake of learning, and their righteous undies are all in a bunch because the teachers and parents are not doing their job and motivating the kids to stay in school.

The comments at the bottom of this Chicago Tribune article were running four to one opposed to the cash incentives.

One poster commented, "With the poverty level in Chicago, I bet a lot of parents are going to be buying food, gas and paying rent with this money, or putting undue pressure on their kids to get the money. Not good." This type of thinking is self-righteous and elitist. She is concerned that parents are going to put pressure on their kids to get good grades. And that is bad why? And she's also concerned that poor parents are going to use the money to buy food or pay rent. And again, why exactly is that bad?

She doesn't even take the normal knee-jerk anti-social-service reaction and suggest that the parents will be using the money to buy drugs or alcohol. No, she's critical of people living at poverty level using money to buy food or pay rent.

I confess that when I originally heard this idea discussed on the radio about a year ago, I had the same WTF reaction that many of you just had: You are freaking kidding me. We're going to pay kids to stay in school and get good grades? It's crazy! It's insane! It's a sign of the apocalypse!

But now that I've taken some time to actually think about it, I've changed my mind. I invite you to do the same.

My perspective, having worked with social service agencies in Chicago, is that there are a whole lot of parents out there who are working hard but are just barely able to pay rent and put food on the table. They live paycheck-to-paycheck, and if their car breaks down, or their kid gets sick and they need to spend $100 on prescriptions, they're screwed. So my feeling is, if their kids can contribute a few bucks to the household by staying in school, and studying hard enough to earn good grades, good for them.

Many--not all--of the kids who will receive incentives already have the odds stacked against them. Did they get a healthy breakfast in the morning? Did they get enough sleep the night before? Do they have a parent at home in the afternoon to make sure that they eat a healthy snack and do their homework? Do they even have a healthy snack waiting for them?

Are they responsible for younger siblings when they should be focusing on their math problems? Are they surrounded by children and families who value education, or do they live in a neighborhood where half of the adults don't even have a high school diploma themselves? Are they afraid when they're walking home from school?

And it's true that some of the kids have parents that are not equipped even to parent them, let alone to provide a home learning environment, or to make sure they get breakfast in the morning. Yes, it's likely that some of the school problems are the direct result of inadequate parenting. But it doesn't matter whose fault it is. What matters is, they are having a hard time, and what we're doing to fix the system is not working.

Maybe it's time to try something new and radical, something that, on the surface, defies common sense: cash for good grades.

If you look at the 2007 School Profiles and State Report Cards for each of the 20 schools, you will find
  • The percentage of low-income families ranges from 82.6% to 98.8% (median 93.65 percent)
  • With the exception of Uplift, which has relatively high-performing readers, 13.8 - 55 percent of students are making adequate yearly progress (AYP) in reading (median 22 percent)
  • 2.3 - 36.3 percent of students are making AYP in math (median 12.3 percent)
  • Average days absent per student ranges from 14.9 to a shocking 42.5 (median 26.4 days)
  • Dropout rates range from .8 to 16.4 percent (median 10.5 percent)
These are kids who, for whatever reason, need drastic intervention to turn their "educational expectancy" around! With the truancy rates so high, it's remarkable that the drop-out rates aren't two or three times higher.

The Trib reporter quoted an egghead from Swarthmore College whose argument against the cash incentives amounted to "but they won't learn to love learning." Seriously. We are talking about kids in schools where you get an attendance award if you've only missed 15 days of school!

He added, "They'll do well in school, maybe, but they won't take any of it out with them. Instead of trying to cultivate an interest in learning, are just turning this into another job." Honestly, if this is the best argument against cash incentives for good grades, then the debate is over before it has even begun. I have used the job analogy with my own kids, and I don't think it's a bad one. School IS their job right now, and this is a good attitude to cultivate.

If you are concerned that this privately-funded pilot program will eventually become a taxpayer liability, I'd like to point out that taxpayers are going to be putting money into these students at some point, either way. The incentive program has the potential to reduce the number of social service and criminal justice dollars needed in the future to deal with kids who became adults with no HS diploma, no job skills, and limited employment opportunities.

Is it ideal to pay kids cash money to get them to do what they should be doing anyway? No. But Chicago is facing an educational crisis, not an ideal North Shore situation, where mom and dad both have advanced degrees and there's not a guy selling crack on the corner. I'm just saying.

I'm not a big fan of Arne Duncan, you might remember; but in this case, I'm in his corner.

Are you?


jeanie said...

Ok, you convinced me! After all we get money to stay at jobs we hate. Many kids are bored and hate school, even in North Shores schools (I know that comes as a shock). However, money would not convince them to stay in school, they just have parents who insist that they do.

Kids who are living at poverty level or below need every incentive we can give them. I hope it works.

E. Peevie said...

Interesting point. But some of the North Shore kids ARE motivated by money--maybe not to stay in school, but to do well in school. I believe it's fairly common for parents give them money for good grades.

I hope it works, too. It's worth a try.