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Published: 9/2/2008

Paying for grades

IN AN ideal world, happy, well-fed students from nurturing, supportive families would rush to school each day, eager to quench their thirst for knowledge. That world, however, is not this world, and it is especially not the world facing many large, urban school districts.

Bowing to that reality, the Washington, D.C., school district is trying a more practical approach to motivating students - paying them off.

As blasphemous as that will sound to education purists, Washington school officials are only acknowledging what parents and teachers have known all along: bribery - whether positive or negative, the carrot or the stick - is an effective way to get young people to do what we want them to do.

Teachers hand out treats and punishments; principals trade educational goals for a stint in the dunking booth or a pie in the face; field trips, free time, and even quizzes and tests often are tied to classroom deportment or achievement, and participation in extracurricular activities or sports is dependent on maintaining specific grade-point averages.

Parents also frequently pay for desired behaviors. "No TV, telephone, or computer time until your homework is completed," and "You can't go out to play until chores are done," are but variations on a theme that recognizes young people as too distractible and shortsighted to work consistently toward rewards that are both abstract and years in the future.

Teenagers need short-term goals and immediate rewards - the more immediate the better - which is what the D.C. schools are trying to provide.

Students at 14 Washington middle schools will be able to earn points for showing up at school (consistently and on time), passing in homework, using good manners, and getting good grades. In the best Puritan Ethic tradition, the harder they work, the more they'll earn, with $2 per point for up to 50 points deposited each month into bank accounts the schools will open in their names.

The Washington Post says the pilot program called Capital Gains is being run in collaboration with Harvard University's American Inequity Lab, which also will pony up half the $2.7 million it could cost if every student earns the maximum in incentives.

The program is not unique, the Post says. Several states have programs to pay students as much as $500 for scoring a 3 or better on Advanced Placement tests, and 62 schools in New York City are paying fourth through seventh graders up to $500 for doing well on a standardized test.

Why not? Elite high school athletes are, in essence, paid to play college sports. Why not pay middle schoolers to go to class, do their homework, and not act up? As we saw with the release of Ohio's annual report card, urban school districts are having a tough time finding a formula for student success. If it fails, it will be because the students can't stay focused on even that short-term and tangible a goal, not because they reject materialism. The types of knowledge teenagers - and, indeed, many adults - pursue for its own sake have little to do with Shakespeare or quadratic equations.

Love of learning, if it develops at all, will come naturally with maturity, regardless of the youthful incentive. Until then, trading dollars for grades doesn't sound like a bad idea at all.



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