My middle school days were largely spent sitting at desks learning algebra, writing essays and complaining about being in class. The teacher would often comfort me with the fact that he, too, was forced to be there each day, and someone would invariably yell, “But you get paid!” Without fail, the response would come: “So do you. Your report card is your paycheck.”
I was only a 13 year old trying to survive the excitement of an Upper Peninsula childhood, but the pay seemed sufficient.
Now, however, the students at some middle schools in the nation’s capital are receiving more literal, and more ridiculous, paychecks. With help from the Capital Gains pilot program, 14 of 28 middle schools in Washington, D.C. are rewarding the kids’ efforts with cold, hard cash.
The program is the brainchild of Harvard economist Roland Fryer, and provides money to middle school students based on attendance, behavior and other academic benchmarks, such as homework completion and grades. The kids receive varying amounts of points for completing these already required tasks, and the points are then converted to dollars. Over the course of the school year, a student can earn a maximum of $1,500.
The total cost of this year’s pilot program is $2.7 million. Half of that bill will be paid by a grant to Harvard from The Broad Foundation, an organization with the goal of “transforming K-12 urban public education through better governance, management, labor relations and competition.” The D.C. taxpayers will be left to pick up the rest of the tab.
And the schools in the district clearly need help. According to a 2007 study, only 12 percent of D.C. eighth-graders were able to read proficiently at grade level, while just 8 percent achieved that designation in math. These numbers are lower than any state in the country.
I’m certainly in favor of bettering our education system, but the Capital Gains program is completely ridiculous on many levels, and it doesn’t even aim to fix the underlying problems in the D.C. public schools.
The program suggests that students in D.C. would be better off, academically, if only we bribed them. Even if this ludicrous notion is true, society can carry that load for just so long. Kids can expect to receive regular paychecks from sixth to eighth grade. After that, the well dries up and the students are back to square one, poor and without academic motivation. Children that do well in school solely for a paycheck will have no incentive when the money stops and will be shocked if they ever head to college, where they will shell out thousands of dollars to continue their education.
The biggest roadblock for improvement in the D.C. public schools, however, has little to do with public education. According to the district’s Master Education Plan from 2006, most kindergartners have “no exposure to books at home.”
Maybe – just maybe – 92 percent of eighth-graders have trouble reading because the only exposure they have to books comes in the classroom. And maybe the kids are showing little interest in academics not because they aren’t being paid enough, but because no one at home is telling them that education is important. Kids need to have exposure to books and early educational opportunities in order to gain a curiosity about the world they live in. And that’s not something that lawmakers and taxpayers can simply purchase.
Washington, D.C. should approach their education disaster from a community standpoint. By improving the community from within, with the creation of libraries and local neighborhood education programs, the district may actually see a real difference in student performance.