PracticalDad:  Should Schools Pay for Grades?

I recently wrote about whether we should pay our children for good grades and our consensus was that the kids would have to do without the money.  But now Time Magazine weighs in with the research put forward by Dr. Roland Fryer of Harvard about the effects of financially rewarding – paying – schoolkids for good grades.  And after reading the article and understanding that there are good points, I still have to disagree and not solely for intellectual reasons.

The trials in question were run in four urban areas – DC, New York City, Chicago and Dallas – and to his credit, appear to be well-designed studies.  Each group in each of the target cities are inner-city students and the reality, politically correct or not, is that most are mostly underprivileged from homes that are not intact.  Each city was also tested based upon different criteria so that the results could be compared against one another as well as against the control groups.  The results were that in two cities, Dallas and DC, the results were positive with reading comprehension scores rising significantly in Dallas and multiple factors being positively affected in DC.  The results in NYC and Chicago were either mixed or to no effect.

There is one key element in the article that bears some exploration.  A common retort of critics – me included – is that kids should be taught that learning is important in and of itself and should be taught that it’s so.  But here’s the paragraph in question:

"We tend to assume that kids (and adults) know how to achieve success.  If they don’t get there, it’s for lack of effort – or talent.  Sometimes that’s true.  But a lot of the time, people are just flying blind.  John List, an economist at the University of Chicago, has noticed the disconnect in his own educational experiments.  He explains the problem to me in this way:  "I could ask you to solve a third-order linear partial differential equation," he says.  "A what?"  I ask.  "A third-order linear partial differential equation," he says.  "I could offer you a million dollars to solve it.  And you can’t do it."  …For some kids, doing better on a geometry test is like solving a third-order linear partial differential equation, no matter the incentive."

The simple reality is that in most inner cities, the welfare society created a situation in which multiple succeeding generations were raised without a real regard for the value of education and then didn’t pass it along to their own children.  One of my laws of fatherhood is the understanding that your child is a blank slate and is going to have to be taught everything; to expect them to simply figure things out is unrealistic.  The simple skills that create a successful learning environment – reading, math drills, checking homework, accountability – are absent and without these in the homes, the kids don’t have the tools necessary to pull themselves along.  Unless there’s an additional incentive that prompts them to the extra effort necessary to overcome the circumstances.

I have two other concerns about the question.  The practical question is one of sheer resources.  If this is to work, then the financial resources have to be in place to cover the costs and the fiscal reality is that the money just isn’t available to pay kids for decent grades.  Some can argue that the available money should be put towards the underprivileged kids since they don’t have the family structure and opportunities in place like those who are in suburban or rural areas.  But this leads to the other concern, which is the corrosive social message that’s sent by the government to the families who do work with their children and push for education and good grades.  Your kids won’t get the money that goes to the underprivileged kids from homes whose families don’t value what you do.  That might seem extreme and childish, but consider the catastrophic law of unintended consequences that struck after the Great Society programs of the 1960s.  Within thirty-five years, the number of fatherless inner-city children rose dramatically and the two-parent model within the inner city was literally destroyed.  Over the next several decades, how many other parents will simply say to hell with it as did so many from the Great Society years?

Which was in large part what led to this predicament.

And let me be honest.  It frustrates me, as I’m sure that it does many other parents, that those parents who don’t place the value upon education are seemingly rewarded at our expense.  So I’m in favor of further exploring the research and perhaps some other reward mechanism can be found that can be universally applied without bankrupting us further.

But otherwise, remember the Great Society debacle and just forget the whole thing.

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