Johnny says: Show me the money!

Liam Julian

Michelle Rhee, the still-newish, no-nonsense, hard-charging, and usually savvy schools chancellor of Washington, D.C., has succumbed to a dubious idea. Last month, she announced that, beginning in October, middle-school pupils who turn in their homework, make it to class, and maintain good grades will, for their diligence, be able to garner monthly paychecks of up to $100. She believes such promises of cash will motivate 12-year-olds to study.

She's not alone. Harvard professor Roland Fryer, who will manage D.C.'s program, is peddling this pay-kids-to-do-what-they-should approach in several cities, and deep-pocketed private foundations are willing to bankroll it. But is it a good idea?

Yes, in a world in which schools are charged only with increasing their students' test scores and nothing else; in which attaining that end justifies any means; and in which unintended consequences can be blithely ignored. But we do not occupy such a world.

The problems begin with Rhee's reasoning, an example of which is this: "When you have a job, your attendance is tracked, whether or not you're doing what you're supposed to be doing is tracked, and based on that you keep your job and you get a paycheck." Schools, she insinuated, should be much the same.

This view--and Rhee isn't the only one to voice it--is illogical because schools are not analogous to employers and pupils are not analogous to workers. A school, unlike an employer, does not reap the services of its students--it provides services to them. If it provides a lousy service, as many public schools do, that is resolved by fixing the management, staff, curriculum, etc. Even the best schools struggle with the recalcitrant youngster seemingly bent on doing anything but study, of course. But this rogue requires strict discipline, not bribes. David Whitman's fine new book, Sweating the Small Stuff, illumines the wonders such discipline can work.

Rhee's jobs analogy also overlooks the fact that K-12 education is compulsory. It is expected that students will complete assignments and work hard; it is legally demanded that they come to school. When these obligatory activities are rewarded with cash, what was once mundane becomes exceptional. Standards of right behavior take a prima facie tumble. The student who shunned class is paid to be there, which makes a mockery of the rules, and the pupil who already came to school on time now receives money for it and learns the false lesson that punctuality and conscientiousness are extraordinary and noteworthy.

Last year, after New York City announced a (Fryer-inspired) plan to reward its own decorous students with cash, psychology professor Barry Schwartz described in the New York Times how paying pupils for good schoolwork may render them even less interested in academics than they already are.

"If that happens," Schwartz wrote, "the incentive system will make the learning problem worse in the long run, even if it improves achievement in the short run--unless we're prepared to follow these children through life, giving them a pat on the head, or an M&M or a check every time they learn something new."

Paying kids may not help in the short run, either. Jonah Rockoff, a professor of finance and economics at Columbia University, recently told the Wall Street Journal, "There's a lot of buzz about pay-for-performance [for students], but we still only have a small amount of studies on these programs, and a lot of them don't come from the U.S." And Fryer has himself said that "the jury is still out" about whether cash incentives cause middling pupils to improve.

Fryer is an economist, by the way, who is conducting in public schools an experiment without fretting overmuch about the unintended consequences his innovation may induce. Similarly untroubled are the education types and philanthropoids that he's wooed. So mesmerized are they by visions of increasing test scores that they've forgotten that schools must also teach students about personal responsibility, delaying gratification (which is quite important), planning for the future, and learning's intrinsic value. Perhaps they've also forgotten, or choose to neglect, the "incentive" effects of promoting and graduating and admitting to college only those young people who have met certain academic standards and prerequisites.

All such lessons are undermined by paying kids for grades. Consider this analogy: One does not instill responsibility in one's vegetable-averse child by paying the youngster $100 a month to swallow his broccoli. Such a parenting strategy is likely to produce a rules-shirking monster--and one who will learn nothing important and enduring about nutrition, behavior, obedience, personal responsibility, or authority. Similar monsters are birthed through an educating strategy that pays pupils to do that which is legitimately expected of them.

Which does not even begin to address the logistical flaws in Rhee's plan. For example, if test scores don't rise, or don't rise enough, does D.C. increase the payouts? And what if only the District's better-off kids wind up getting paid? Does Rhee then limit the program to the just the poorest of the poor, and does she define down the standards for receiving dollars? What if an investigative reporter for the Washington Post reveals that some middle-schoolers habitually trade their good-grades cash for candy, Camel Ultra Lights, wine coolers, or sexual favors? Etc.

K-12 education must welcome promising innovations and responsible experiments, but schools are not Petri dishes. Experimentation has consequences for those experimented upon, and in the case of paying students for right behavior those consequences far outweigh whatever benefits might be accrued.

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