Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Paying for Grades: Outside The Box Thinking or Hidden Racism?

As anyone who's followed this site for any period of time knows, AB is for the chill'rens. I heavily advocate becoming a tutor, mentor, or coaching youth sports because I believe the children are our future, and since most adults are already eff'ed the eff' up, it's best to concentrate your efforts there if you wanna actually make a difference. I practice what I preach, and have spent the last four months or so making weekly visits to AverageMentee's school when I'm not up here in Minneapolis freezing my butt off.

[Editor's Note: This is finally my last week in the Twin Cities, and it couldn't come soon enough. The D-bag customer I told ya'll about in the C.Y.I.N. Chronicles last week is out of my way, so this week's a breeze. Literally. This morning it was 34 and sunny. Bamas were wearing sweatshirts and fleece pullovers like it was October or something. Tomorrow, when you mix in the wind chill factor, it will be something like negative 40 degrees. That's like an 80 degree swing in less than 24 hours. Seriously, WTH? Black folks just ain't built for this kinda weather. Or at least this one ain't.]

Anyways, after spending many hours at AverageMentee's school, I've begun to understand firsthand the ups and downs of education in a large public school system (this is suburban DC. Prince Georges County, MD to be exact). The school's facilities are old, but the teachers are young, energetic, and in many cases, not completely demoralized by the system (yet). The kids are generally bright and well behaved, but clustered together in classes with widely varying levels of reading ability (this is intentional, I forget the scientific term for it though), which sometimes seems counterproductive. The students spend an inordinate amount of time "learning" how to take standardized tests, but hardly any time at recess/PE. Some parents are quite involved and routinely take time off work to volunteer at the school, but many others don't even bother showing when they have scheduled parent teacher conferences. And despite all the resources, mentor programs (like mine), and state mandates, the school (especially the black boys) as a whole is struggling mightily to merely read at a basic level of proficiency. It's not quite as bad as the school depicted on last season's The Wire, but it ain't too far removed either.

I only visit the school an hour each week, but doing so has helped me gain an even greater appreciation for the job that our teachers are faced with each day. AverageMentee is bright and inquisitive, but we jointly struggle each week with overcoming his reading comprehension impediment. Some days, this is mutually frustrating and draining. I often leave the school wondering if I am even making a difference, or merely trying to fool myself into thinking I am. So imagine taking this occacasional level of discouragement and multiplying it times 25 kids, 8 plus hours a day, 5 plus days a week. And you're not even gettin' pizzaid to top it all off. Real talk: if you chose teaching as a profession, you get automatic lifetime props from AB.com. Holler at me, I'll send the CapriSuns. You earned em'.

So, while I consider myself a very small cog in the eventual solution of the achievement gap dilemma, I also salute educators who are willing to try some unconventional approaches to fixing the chasm in uneven quality of modern day public education. Geoffrey Canada's well-publicized Harlem Children's Zone, and the KIPP Academies in many East Coast cities are great examples of such innovation. But when I peep this plan out of New York City, part of me wonders if this tactic is a bit shortsighted.

New York City students could earn as much as $500 a year for doing well on standardized tests and showing up for class in a new program to begin this fall, city officials announced yesterday. And the Harvard economist who created the program is joining the inner circle of Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, according to an official briefed on the hiring. The economist, Roland G. Fryer, who has published several studies on racial inequality in public schools, met this month with school principals around the city to push his program, which uses money raised privately.

Both Mr. Klein and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg have been eager to hear Professor Fryer’s thoughts on how to reverse the persistent lagging of poor and minority students, who make up most of the city’s public school enrollment. But educators have been skeptical, saying students have to love learning for its own sake, not for cash prizes.

Under his plan, fourth-grade students will receive up to $25 for a perfect score on each of 10 standardized tests throughout the year. Seventh-grade students will be able to earn twice as much — $50 per test, for a total of up to $500. Fourth graders will receive $5 just for taking the test, and seventh graders will get $10.

Cash incentives for adults will include $150 a month for keeping a full-time job and $50 a month for having health insurance. Families will also receive as much as $50 per month per child for high attendance rates in school, as well as $25 for attending parent-teacher conferences.
I'll just outright ignore the underlying inference that poor, minority students can only achieve academic success when paid. There's a little "soft bigotry of low expectations"-type racial politricks going on there. There's also the small issue of rewarding mere mediocrity (you get money for just coming to school, and for taking standardized tests that are required anyway) as opposed to excellence. But the issue of how to best motivate students to achieve is one that goes beyond socioeconomic babble. It's about the deeper issue of what makes an individual tick.

And BTW, $500 aint even enough for one pair of Red Monkey jeans. If they're really trying to get youngins to buckle down and study, they need to step they stipend game up. Over the years, I've been bribed for academic achievement, as well as bribed my fair share of mentees and nephews. I can personally vouch for the fact that "paying for grades" is a temporary motivation at best. And now that I've got a budding child prodigy of my own to raise, this issue is something constantly on my mind. Most of the books I've read on the topic, including the insightful Raising Motivated Kids: Inspiring Enthusiasm for a Great Start in Life, seem to back up this assertion. Point blank: kids have to want it for themselves.

As much as I admire NYC's "outside the box" thinking, part of me says this will work in the short term, yet a few years from now, lots of the other school systems nationwide copying this approach will probably regret opening this door in the first place. And the reason is simple: external motivation (in this case financial) is good for some things, but encouraging a desire to learn is not one of them. At least not in any lasting fashion.

This may (or may emphatically not) surprise some of you, but AverageBro was an extremely AverageStudent in grade school. I was diagnosed as one of those "gifted and talented" students early on, and thrust into a post-Antebellum South environment of "the only black in the class" from primary school forward. Somewhere around the 9th grade or so, I got tired of being "the only smart black guy in school" and got infected with a Grade A Case of Nigganosis. In short, I just plain stopped trying, dumbed myself down to fit in with the rest of my peers, and did just enough to get by for the next four years. Without exerting much effort, I was still a solid B+ student even though I seldom even bothered bringing books home. I never pushed myself to take AP courses. I always did the bare minimum. I still ended up finishing in the Top 10% in my graduating class, which got me a full ride to study engineering at my Negro College HBCU. Needless to say, I thought college would be a breeze, but old habits of laziness and general slackerdom are hard to break. After only three semesters, I had already blown the scholarship and was on academic probation.

Faced with the crisis of coming back home and working menial jobs for the rest of my life, I heeded my old man's advice (he wasn't paying for anything beyond one more semester), buckled down, turned my act around and graduated on time with honors and nine job offers. What was the difference? How was AB able to go from ashy to classy? It's very simple: I finally wanted to learn.

Yes, getting internships, ensuring my future, showing my Dad I could hold my own, etc. were all important, but what was most crucial was a need to prove to myself that I could do better. That I wasn't a dummy. That it was in fact, okay to be smart because, duh, what the heck else are you going to college for? The financial carrot (scholarship and stipend) wasn't enough to make this happen. My Dad's constant "you better plan on getting a job if you fail out, cause you ain't movin' back here"'s didn't do it. Only I could make that decision. And I think that's where the NYC plan will fall short.

If there's one thing I've learned in my brief time at AverageMentee's school, it's that school systems spend too darn much time on structured lessons preparing kids to pass standardized tests, and don't give teachers nearly enough time, resources, and latitude to be creative and find ways of encouraging kids to gain a desire, heck, a lust to want to learn. Not to learn to pass a test. Not to learn to get $100 for each A. Just to learn, just because. Parents, obviously, could do a lot to encourage this desire to learn in every kid from Day One, but then again, there's no Standardized Test for Parenting. Maybe there should be.

So, while I think that's happening in the Big Apple and in school systems nationwide is a novel concept, the eternal pessimist in me just don't see it having a lasting, longterm effect. What do ya'll think?

Question: Do you think New York City's pay for grades program is a lasting motivator for kids? If you're a parent of a school aged kid yourself, how do you recommend developing a "desire to learn"?

Schools Plan to Pay Cash for Marks [NYTimes]

More "You Must Learn" Posts From AB.com:
No Wonder Our Schools Are So Bad. [Oct 07']
Why Tyrone Can't Learn... The Achievement Gap [May 07']

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