Making Allowances

Ashley Thorne

  • Article
  • October 09, 2008

Want to keep students on the track to academic success? Pay them!

This year, the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University (EdLabs) began contributing to a new initiative in D.C. urban schools: paying cash to middle school students for attendance, good behavior, and high grades. Fourteen inner city schools were selected for the program, called Capital Gains, whose slogan is “Behave well, get paid well.” Capital Gains places reward money under students’ names in Sun Trust savings accounts. Students can earn up to $100 every two weeks and are free to spend the money as they wish.

The program raises some logistical questions: Why only fourteen schools? And why are middle school students the only recipients? According to a report by the Washington Post, the experiment includes a total of twenty-eight schools: fourteen schools that pay students and fourteen comparable schools that do not, in order to attain measurable results. And middle school, of course, is that crucial time in education, when students’ academic habits and values can either solidify or dissolve. The problem, according to EdLabs, is that only “12% of middle school students in Washington, D.C. are proficient in reading and 8% are proficient in mathematics. Desperate times call for bold measures.” harden

Michelle Rhee, the new Chancellor of the D.C. public school system, is not afraid to take bold measures. Rhee approved the Capital Gains program, saying “This is the time for radical intervention.” She said, “Our kids have the ability to do so much more. I know this, and so everything we can do to capitalize on that potential and on the abilities they have, we’re absolutely going to do.”

Teaching students to be smart money managers is one goal for the program, but the main idea behind Capital Gains is simply to motivate uninspired kids. Roland Fryer, the program’s designer and the director of Harvard’s American Inequality Lab, said that most families provide incentive systems like allowances, cell phones and other privileges to encourage their children to do well in school. “We’re just trying to do that for poor kids who don’t have the resources for these types of things,” Fryer said.

That Harvard is helping to fund the program tells more about the impetus for Capital Gains. So does the involvement of Mr. Fryer, who designed similar pilot programs that rewarded students in New York City schools with cash and cell phones. In addition to his role as an economist for Harvard, Fryer is the Chief Equality Officer of the NYC Department of Education. NAS has noted the campus Chief Diversity Officer, but what does a Chief Equality Officer do? We get a hint from Fryer’s bio:

He has published papers on topics such as the racial achievement gap, the causes and consequences of distinctively black names, affirmative action, the impact of the crack cocaine epidemic, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and 'acting white.' He is an unapologetic analyst of racial inequality who uses theoretical, empirical, and experimental tools to squeeze truths from the data — wherever that may lead.

Squeezing truth from data is exactly what NAS would like to see happen in higher education. Too often though, academics begin with politically correct assumptions and squeeze out their own truth.

Perhaps that’s the case with Capital Gains, which, through its ties to the Harvard American Inequality Lab and Roland Fryer, seems to be linked with the concept that “educational justice” can be achieved by providing special treatment for minority students. Is this a skewed sense of justice? Is Capital Gains unfair to white (and all) students in other schools who must behave and do homework for free? Another question to consider is whether programs like Capital Gains will backfire in the long run, when entitled students refuse to care about school unless it comes with a salary. And what if jealous college students want in on the deal?

Paying students may turn out to be an unfair or unwise venture. But for now, the concept is being acclaimed as salvific for inner city kids. One middle school student, when asked what she will do to get the money, pledged, “Do what I’m supposed to do, wear my uniform, do my work, pay attention, and change my behavior.”

It looks like Capital Gains—and students—just might work.

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