Pay kids to go to school

I am sure you have heard some variation of it by now: Black children do worse in school than white children. The reasons for this disparity in academic achievement are both ostensible and percussive, but as esteemed Harvard economist Roland Fryer states, “in today’s world, it is not enough to simply say: ‘Go to school and get a good job’”. Or at least it’s not without some form of tangible incentive attached.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must acknowledge and admit that I was initially one of the enthusiastic (if not misguided) cheerleaders of the tough love approach. A strong proponent of leaving K-12 children to their own devices, teaching them long-term life lessons, such as working hard for the “A”, and delaying tangible gratification of a “job well done” at school, while working feverishly hard for future success. That was until I had my “Saul on the Road to Damascus” experience.

Context matters, and truthful assessment of any situation has value for its own sake. And the truth is, the old and dated academic intervention strategies are not helping us close this achievement gap, whether it is existing programs such as Head Start, bussing children to better schools, or even the promise of a free college education, such as presented by “The I Have a Dream” program in New York City. The achievement gap remains audacious.

The unflinching reality is that it is time for a comeuppance and a naked assessment of why these programs are yielding marginal results, and how we can realign our misguided notions and definitions of workable strategies moving forward.

“At risk” and “underperforming” children have an intelligence quota that we have not yet been able to fathom, much less measure, using our antiquated and truncated methods of capture. Each day, these children perform a complex mental calculus, balancing the cost of putting forth academic effort against the perceived benefit that it could provide, both in the concrete near term, and in the abstract long. Their result? Education is but a vapid waste of time, because nobody they know has successfully utilized it to escape the torpor of day to day existence.

Armed with this knowledge, hopes and dreams begin the rapid transformation into apathy and frustration, within the walls of a building we expect imagination and dreams to flourish. Through it all, we as adults are expecting these young children to be so courageous and forward-thinking to venture down an unproven track of education, with no readily apparent rewards, based simply on our own lofty ideals of what works and what does not.

With that as a back drop, it becomes laughable when critics of academic incentives say “The ‘A’ itself at the end of the semester should be motivation enough for the student, and should be the student’s ultimate reward”. That works in theory, but so does communism. In theory.

In fact, these critics are missing the point that we need to fundamentally overhaul the way we look at education, from the way we fund it, to the types of teachers and principals that staff our schools, to the discovery of innovative ways to change mindsets of students. While it sounds both simple and intuitive, it is this changing of student mindsets that I feel is the most fertile ground for significant change.

Having said that, at long last, after exhausting every other possibility, place me squarely as an advocate for tangible incentives, bribes, bait, blackmail, payoffs, or any other abstruse verb or noun that your mind can conjure up. As long as it works..

Companies use raises, bonuses and stock options as incentives to get workers to excel, and preliminary results suggest that it is also working to motivate children perform better in school. Incentive programs of up to $100 for each passing grade have been funded by Exxon/Mobil in Arkansas, Alabama, Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Virginia and Washington. Baltimore schools have dedicated more than $935,000 to pay high school students up to $110 each to improve their state graduation exam scores. Similar programs have also been implemented in Atlanta, Chicago, Washington DC, and New York City.

When such a program was implemented in Dallas, Texas, AP course-taking jumped significantly, and there was a 30% rise in the number of students with high SAT and ACT scores, and an 8% rise in college-going students. And that’s not all. In New York City, about two-thirds of the 59 high-poverty schools in Roland Fryers incentive based program, improved their scores by margins above the citywide average. Teachers report seeing indisputable academic benefits, including more motivation, better focus, and an increase in healthy competition for good grades among students3.

In a lot of ways, paying kids to learn is like engaging them in “Jedi mind tricks”, slyly rewarding them in the short term, while we, as fiduciary adults, keep a keen eye on the long term horizon. This tactic only makes sense, because as ambassadors and stakeholders of the future, it is imperative that the youth engage and understand, at an early age, the importance that education plays in whatever future paths they may take.

Often this lesson is learned too late, after coursework has been neglected, and G.P.A.’s have suffered. Paying children instills within them a spirit of self reliance, rather than subjecting them to the fancies and whims of teachers, mentors, or parents, that may, regrettably, not have an interest in seeing the child progress academically. Again, the notion of hard work must be matched with a commensurate reward that is tangible, rather than one that is ethereal, out in the cosmos somewhere.

The battle lines have been drawn, and the stakes are so high that nobody can afford to just sit on the sidelines. I have talked to countless teachers from New York City to Los Angeles and everywhere in-between. I am yet to meet one who is not in favor of at least giving the incentive program an opportunity to prove itself, if not in all-out favor of its nationwide implementation. Their plea is simple: DO SOMETHING!

C. Frank Igwe is the Executive Director of the non-profit organization, City ACES (Athletes Changing Expectations), which utilizes professional athletes in the NBA/NFL/MLB/NCAA to motivate and inspire Middle-School aged youth residing in underperforming school districts, and distressed communities, across the United States. City ACES seeks to instill a sense of purpose and esteem within these children, and aid them in realizing their full potential through education.