Monday, August 25, 2008

Desperation Time In D.C.: School Is Money?

Raw Fisher

The Cold Splash of Reality, With A Side of Sizzle

Desperation Time In D.C.: School Is Money?

The school renovations aren't going so well, the teachers are resisting Chancellor Michelle Rhee's ambitious plan to undo decades-old seniority and tenure rules, and student performance remains persistently miserable.

Despite her great energy and stunning ability to push dramatic change through a historically resistant political structure, the District's schools chancellor is getting a little bit desperate. The evidence: Yesterday's announcement of a deeply cynical effort starting this fall to pay D.C. middle schoolers to attend school, behave decently and perform in the classroom.

Yes, pay them, as in cash money. Rhee, Mayor Adrian Fenty and Harvard University economist Roland Fryer, a 30-year-old wunderkind who has taken on some highly controversial topics in novel and fascinating ways, are teaming up on a pilot project that will be rolled out in 14 District middle schools. Kids who show up, follow the rules and meet academic goals will collect points that could earn them paychecks of as much as $100 every two weeks--per kid. The money--the city expects to spend $2.7 million the first year--will be deposited into bank accounts in each student's name.

No reasonable person expected Rhee to start producing better test scores in such a short time, and despite some rough spots, she's still very much enjoying a political honeymoon. So why would she and Fenty embrace a totally unproven, wildly speculative, and depressingly classist, bordering on racially condescending, tactic like "School Is Money?" (That's the name the D.C. school system first circulated for the program, but now it's being called "Capital Gains"--much smoother, much more corporate, but the first name is more revealing about the mindset behind this ghastly concept.)

(Whoa, hold it right there: You can't just drop in that bit about race and move on.

(Right. But how else to explain a program that assumes that underperforming, inner-city black students must be paid to attend and perform in school, while no one has ever suggested that such an approach is even worth discussing for more affluent, suburban, white children? And how else do you explain this bizarre comment from Professor Fryer, who came up with the pay-to-learn plan and has implemented versions of it in New York and Chicago?

("We have incentive programs in our suburbs," he said. "Kids get shiny red cars at graduation." Wow. I've never heard of that actually happening outside of a Hollywood teen flick, but I'm sure there must be some real parents who promise their precious ones a car for graduating from high school. Still, for a Harvard economist to offer that silly stereotype as justification for treating inner-city students as if they are incapable of being infected with a pure love of learning is nauseating and, yes, smacks of racial condescension.)

Ever since she got to town, Rhee has won the hearts and minds of parents and others by talking about her passion for instilling in young Washingtonians the love of learning that school should be all about. That's why she's fought against the narrowing of curriculum forced onto school systems by the No Child Left Behind test mania. That's why she's recruited a whole new generation of teachers and principals to replace those D.C. schools staffers who truly believed that "these kids"--the mainly low-income black students who account for nine in ten D.C. schoolchildren--cannot learn.

So how does she now justify the idea that children must be paid to behave properly and take school seriously?

Washington's middle school students are failing in spectacular fashion. In the national NAEP test scores, the District ranks last among all urban districts in the country, with only 12 percent of eighth graders proficient in reading and only nine percent at grade level in math.

"These numbers are absolutely dismal," Rhee said. "Middle school is a turning point. These are the years when they crystallize their attitudes toward education. This is the time for some sort of radical intervention."

So far, so good, and that's why Rhee has been properly fascinated by experiments in all-day or all-year schools and even boarding programs--anything to pull kids away from dysfunctional homes and neighborhoods where there are far too few models of devotion to academic achievement.

But here's Rhee's rationale for embracing the idea of paying kids: "This is exactly what life is about. You get a paycheck every two weeks. We're preparing children for life, for their jobs."

Really? I asked the chancellor if she does her grueling, all-consuming job for the money. To her credit, she took the question seriously.

"Do I do my work for the money? Absolutely not. However, would I do this job if I wasn't paid at all?" She couldn't do that, she said, but that was a deflection of the question. Of course Rhee doesn't do this for the money. No one who does creative or enterprising work is in it solely for the bucks. At every level of work, whether executive or clerk, the energy and commitment put into the job is determined far more by a sense of pride, belonging or achievement than by the money. That doesn't mean money isn't important, essential, and a factor in determining job happiness. But money is at best a short-term, superficial motivator.

School, according to Rhee's own oft-stated views, should not be a grim, bottom-line enterprise. If you can get kids to discover the thrill and satisfaction of mastering new material from a very early age, you have them hooked--the whole job of educating then becomes vastly easier. Paying them is the ultimate expression of surrender.

"If this new partnership seems out of the box, it is," Fenty said at the presser announcing the deal. (No money changes hands between the District and Harvard; Fryer's lab handles most of the paperwork on the project and grants pay for Harvard's end of the costs, Rhee told me.) The mayor said it's time for a radical approach in "a school system that for too long has seen too much money being spent with too little result."

But this radical approach is wholly unproven. Fryer is something of an intellectual firebrand. He takes on hot button issues and submits them to the kind of rigorous test that they don't usually get because most people are too sensitive about open discussion of the possibilities. So he examines whether differences in racial groups' academic performance might have genetic roots (not likely, his research concluded), whether distinctively black names sentence children to lives of discrimination or lower economic status (no, it's the family background that plays a much larger role, he found), and whether school segregation is necessarily a bad thing (in the aggregate, yes, but in a particular school, not really, he concludes.)

The pay-to-learn schemes Fryer is running in New York and now Washington are experiments. He does not claim to have evidence yet that the program works, though he hints that he will have data this fall indicating some success.

But the early reports from another New York City pay-incentive program show no such luck: High school students who were offered up to $1,000 if they scored high on Advanced Placement tests were indeed more likely to take the exams, but actually scored lower than those who took the test than those who went through the process before the pay incentives took effect.

Must 3,000 D.C. students in 14 middle schools really be subjected to this degrading experiment just to build up the pile of evidence that school is indeed not money? Apparently so, because we live in impatient times, and Mayor Blackberry and his dynamic schools sidekick want to get there right now.

Here, kid, here's a dollar. Now shut up and learn.

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