Cash rewards flunk out

New York City has started to pay students to get good grades. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein propelled the program, which began this school year. The city has so far handed out more than $500,000 to 5,237 students.

Students from Grade 4 to Grade 7 receive money for doing well on standardized tests.

The program’s cash rewards for good grades are meant to drive children to excel in school.

Although at its most basic level the program has good intentions, it’s rife with both short-term and long-term problems.

Encouraging students to study and perform using cash incentives is a backwards approach to education that reverses the idea of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. It’s unlikely this will teach kids to pick up a book with the intent to learn—how many nine-year-olds will take the time to understand the material when just memorizing it will put $40 in their pocket?

The money for the program’s privately raised and although that’s probably relieving for taxpayers, it also indicates the municipal government has failed to provide its 58 schools with adequate resources to give these kids the education they need.

There are risks when some children end up with the extra milk money and others don’t—the possibility of schoolyard bullying, for example, is multiplied and may even turn the reward into a disincentive to do well.

Parents in lower-income households may also rely on their children to bring home that extra cash. Pressure at home won’t do much to foster an encouraging environment and there’s a good chance parents in need of the money don’t have time to tutor their kids or help with homework.

The program could potentially have long-term regressive effects. It’s often those who aren’t doing well that need the money the most. Standardized tests aren’t always the best indicator of a person’s intelligence, and this program may push students who don’t excel academically to put the books down and look for other, less productive ways to keep up financially with their peers.

The program also addresses a real problem from the wrong angle: if students aren’t learning what they should, the system’s broken and doling out cash for high test scores won’t fix that.

Although this program has the right intentions, its methods and, most likely, its results will get a failing grade.

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