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'Pay for grades' movement stirs passions among teachers, parents

Prepaid debit cards become reward of choice for good report cards. Do they work?

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It is known by many names: Learn & Earn in Atlanta, Green for Grade$ in Chicago, Capital Gains in Washington, D.C., and Opportunity NYC in New York City.

Regardless of the name, nothing sets parents, teachers and state lawmakers at each other's throats quite like the concept of paying students to achieve good grades.

The so-called "pay for grades" movement has spread recently from economically challenged urban cores to relatively affluent middle-class cities around the country, with supporters and opponents squaring off in equal measure over its effectiveness.

'Pay for grades' movement spawns passions among teachers, parents

As the rhetoric has escalated, so have the incentive rewards, from classroom pizzas to cash and now debit cards.

$6 an hour for studying
In one new initiative, freshmen participants in the Tuition Incentive Program at Eastside Memorial High School in Austin, Texas, were paid $6 per hour on preloaded Visa debit cards funded by private donors for working with an algebra tutor outside of school hours.

Texas hasn't warmed to the idea of using tax dollars to pay for grades quite yet, but reports of improved attendance, behavior and academic performance elsewhere have prompted civic leaders including former Austin Mayor Bruce Todd to start privately funded programs such as TIP.

"The statistics on the cost of school dropouts, both to the individual and the general public, are staggering," says Todd. "With TIP, it's not the social good, although that's present. It's not the community interest, although that is certainly present. It's the value that is so important; value to the students for getting an education that they otherwise might not have gotten had they dropped out."

Todd says that many school-age kids drop out to either work to help support their family or babysit younger siblings so the parents can do so. The TIP program provides incentive money to students who attend algebra tutorials after school and on weekends because algebra has been shown to be a "threshold course" to other academic disciplines.

"If they can make it through algebra, the chances of that having spillover to English, history, geography and civics is much higher," Todd says. "These kids are not dumb. The biggest thing they lack is self-esteem. If they believe they can be a success in the hardest course in their school, that makes everything else much more do-able."

Debit cards vs. cash incentives
Dr. Richard Armenta, the associate vice president of student success at Austin Community College who administers the TIP funding, says organizers chose to use the debit card for two reasons: At age 15, the ninth grade participants were too young to be placed on payroll, and the debit cards could be easily replaced if lost or stolen.

Giving them cash is a much better idea because we know how much harder it is to part with money you see than money you don't see.

-- April Benson    
Author    

"The parents were certainly aware that their children would be getting cards, but no other signature was required," he says. "The students were free to use them any way they wanted."

Money psychologist April Benson, author of "I Shop Therefore I Am," thinks cash would be more appropriate than a debit card for school kids.

"Giving them cash is a much better idea because we know how much harder it is to part with money you see than money you don't see, " she says.

Pay likened to steroids, bribes
Bob Schaeffer, spokesman for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which opposes pay for grades, says any return on investment is strictly temporary.

"There may be a short-term, steroid-like boost in performance, but like steroids, one that has negative long-term consequences," he says. "One of the reasons we are seeing so much of this in the testing realm is due to the nation's politically driven obsession with test scores as the sole measure of learning."

There may be a short-term, steroid-like boost in performance, but like steroids, one that has negative long-term consequences.

-- Bob Schaeffer
National Center for Fair and Open Testing

"What happens is, in settings where there is no reward -- or bribe as we like to call it -- there is no performance. Kids develop the expectation of pay-for-performance, and if they're not being paid, they don't perform."

Schaeffer would rather see public and private money go where it is most needed: to hire and retain good teachers, and to assess and address the more pressing causes of poor academic performance, including poor vision, untreated dental problems and inadequate nutrition.

Bruce Todd is quick to point out that TIP is "definitely not pay for grades." The incentive is to encourage tutoring outside of school hours, regardless of any academic outcome.

"The money part of it will become less the reason than what they're getting out of it educationally over time," he says. "I don't care if it becomes completely unimportant, we will still continue paying the money. That's a small price to pay."

See related: Student lunch money replaced by prepaid cafeteria cardsCashless colleges: Student IDs turn into payment systems 

Published: September 4, 2009


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