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Money on the Mind

The national debate over education swells modestly with every election cycle, only to subside again as soon as the votes are counted. George W. Bush has given us No Child Left Behind, whose aftermath is sure to linger for years to come; the presidential hopefuls of 2008 will no doubt offer their own platforms. From a brief perusal of their positions, one can expect the usual platitudes about smaller classrooms, gifted teachers and technological proficiency, sugared over with assertions that our children are truly our greatest hope.

The view from the educational front lines here in New York, though, gives cause for concern. A half-decade after Mayor Michael Bloomberg seized control of the public schools, the results are less than encouraging. The highly touted campaign for small schools has created a few gems, but also more than a few disasters; equipping classrooms with technology has been an unqualified bust, with The New York Times recently reporting that laptops actually hinder student progress; young, motivated, but largely unprepared teachers have flooded underperforming schools, only to find themselves overwhelmed by a task that appears considerably more valiant from a safe distance. Meanwhile, the graduation rate continue to hover around 60, literacy rates are not much higher, and--as many an observer has noted--American education is steadily slipping from its once-vaunted pole position in the first world.

There's no silver bullet to fix our schools, but a silver coin just might do the trick. Quite simply, we should pay students for attending school regularly and meeting performance benchmarks--such as passing the universally dreaded standardized exams that have become the yardstick of public education since No Child Left Behind. While knowledge for knowledge's sake is a laudable ideal, our long-neglected schools desperately need a realistic program of reform that utilizes the most effective aspects of our market-driven culture.

We should begin with an honest admission: The desire to reform education does not stem from the conviction that knowing about photosynthesis or Animal Farm is inherently important; rather, most of us hold that a child who can perform well in a classroom on a daily basis will likely become an adult who can integrate meaningfully into our incentive-based society without burdening fellow citizens. Conversely, the majority of the problems welfare purports to battle first manifest themselves when students lose interest in school and drop out, with taxpayers eventually footing the bill for health care, law enforcement, drug rehabilitation, welfare-to-work, and other social services.

Providing financial incentives for students to succeed can preclude many of the problems that may potentially develop, at a much smaller price. The annual per capita cost of incarceration in a state prison is almost $25,000, a staggering sum compared to the several hundred dollars a student might earn per year. A modestly funded federal initiative could allow schools to target concrete areas of improvement--attendance, behavior, grades, standardized tests--while giving school districts the freedom to disburse funds to students who meet these predetermined goals. Unlike cure-all proposals that pump money into programs that later turn out to be ineffective, pay-for-performance would function like a paycheck that arrives only with a job well done; should students fail to meet their goals, they will not be paid. If Americans really do love a bargain, then this may be the best one yet: an almost negligible investment with the potential for stratospheric returns.

The push for privatization is not an entirely novel idea. Whether driven by desperation or innovation, several developing nations have successfully instituted pay-for-performance programs. In Bangladesh, where malnourishment is a persistent problem, the government initiated Food for Education in 1993, allowing families to receive 12-15 kg. of grain if their children reached 85 percent attendance. According to the Center for Global Development, at a cost of only $40 per year, the program enrolls 2.19 million families, boosting school enrollment while also increasing calorie consumption. A similar initiative in Brazil, Bolsa Escolar, now a decade old, pays mothers about $18 per month to keep children in school. Again, the statistics point to an unqualified success: Dropout rates among participating families have plummeted, while retention and promotion are rising.

In the United States, national reform may be years away, but school administrators are warming to the idea that paying students can rouse schools from decades of chronic under-achievement. Dallas schools, for example, have seen an impressive jump in Advance Placement test scores after a private foundation offered to pay students between $100 and $500 for passing the exams, while the number of juniors and seniors taking the exams increased from 55 to 279 per thousand students from 1995 to 2003, well above the national average). Even more remarkably, the schools have managed to close the racial performance gap, and, according to The Washington Post, black students are now outpacing their white counterparts. In a Boston suburb, the Chelsea High School has solved its attendance problem by offering $125 to students with perfect attendance for the year. And in Ohio, Case Western University has conducted a pilot program in which students are offered incentives of as much as $100 to students in grades 3-6 who perform well on their standardized exams. Scores have risen significantly since the program was instituted, and participating classrooms score a grade level above those that abstain from financial motivators. And, in a sign that a major paradigm shift could be afoot, the National Math and Science Initiative Inc., a non-profit funded by ExxonMobil, announced in March that it would roll out a national initiative that will pay students $250 per AP exam passed.

The sociological implications of paying students are, admittedly, more ambiguous. Some education reformers advocate raising teacher salaries, which could galvanize the nation's depleted teaching corps. At the same time, however, talented teachers are routinely frustrated by unmotivated, underperforming students, and no paycheck compensates for a classroom that has the intellectual energy of a crowded subway car. Selectively distributing money to those who have the greatest stake in a school--that is, those who attend it--will not only boost student performance but also significantly facilitate a teacher's daunting task by tying positive classroom behavior to tangible gains. Providing students with opportunities to earn money in school may also help legitimize education in communities where academic success has been perceived as capitulation to the system at large ("selling out" or "acting white") and where the cash reward would serve as proof of irrefutable value with the possibility of compelling others into similar activity.

It is, however, entirely possible that even a financial incentive will fail to motivate some students, who may regard a cash bonus in the same vein as pizza parties, movie days, and other lackluster motivators. Nor is there any guarantee that students will not use the money for unsavory purposes. The funds could go to their parents or be placed in escrow until high school graduation, but that would defeat the very purpose of a program whose effectiveness lies in the explicit correlation between academic achievement and financial gain.

After all, despite the crucial lessons of self-worth any good teacher ought to instill, most students will ultimately be measured how much money they are able to make, especially since conspicuous consumption--Hummers, McMansions, bling--is unabashedly au courant again. Why, then, would schools disingenuously insist on creating "communities of learners" when the rest of society is so starkly divided between the rich and poor? It would be more honest to create communities of earners who at once increase their economic stature and accumulate academic skills that they will, quite literally, take to the bank.

By Alexander Nazaryan