Earn an A? Here's $50.

(Eke out a C? That's still good for $20.)
A Chicago Public Schools pilot program will pay up to 5,000 freshmen for good grades. Is that a smart idea?

Up to 5,000 freshmen at 20 Chicago public high schools will get cash for good—and even average—grades as part of a new, Harvard-designed test program that city education leaders are rolling out Thursday.

Students will be measured every five weeks in math, English, social sciences, science and physical education. An A nets $50, a B equals $35 and a C still brings in $20. Students will get half the money upfront, with the remainder paid upon graduation. A straight-A student could earn up to $4,000 by the end of his or her sophomore year.

Parents have been rewarding children for stellar report cards for decades. Chicago Public Schools officials are nodding to that tradition and saying the idea is to get students to stay in school and do well while they're there.

"The majority of our students don't come from families with a lot of economic wealth. I'm always trying to level the playing field," said schools chief executive Arne Duncan. "This is the kind of incentive that middle-class families have had for decades."

Chicago is following the lead of similar programs in their infancy in New York and Washington. The district's plan, part of the "Green for Grade$" program, involves no taxpayer money—the $2 million over two years comes from private sources.

Critics suggest that what amounts to bribing students to get good grades isn't the right lesson to teach.

"It's a terrible idea, because you're getting people to do things for the wrong reasons," said Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore College psychology professor who has written on the issue. "They'll do well in school, maybe, but they won't take any of it out with them. Instead of trying to cultivate an interest in learning, curiosity . . . you are just turning this into another job."

The message is selling just fine, however, at Uplift Community High School in Uptown.

Jeremy Kellum, 14, a freshman, said that although he's accustomed to getting C's, especially in science and social studies, getting paid as much as $4,000 is all the incentive he needs to hit the books harder.

"I do love green money. . . . I'll shoot for A's instead of slacking off, getting by with a C now," Kellum said. "My plan is to study more, to not play in class as much as I did last year, and basically pay attention to the teacher and take good notes and pass tests."

Duncan said that's the type of dedication he's after from students.

Focus on freshmen

The program is aimed at freshmen because research shows a correlation between how well students do in 9th grade to overall high school success, he said. During the first two years of high school, students are at most risk of dropping out, which is why the district's program covers students through the end of sophomore year.

About 58 percent of CPS freshman students are considered "on-track," up 1 percent from the previous year. That means a freshman has earned at least five course credits and failed no more than one semester in either English, math, social sciences or science, officials said. Students must have earned six credits a year to be eligible to graduate.

Under the reward plan, students who receive an F in any of the five courses won't get any money until they have scored a C or better in that failed subject either the following semester or in summer school, Duncan said.

"I see the freshman year as a life-changing experience; I want to keep those kids in school and reward them for doing the right thing," Duncan said. "We can't do enough to put the spotlight on students who work very hard and overcome tough odds."

District officials said the 20 high schools were chosen by lottery out of 65 that applied. Duncan noted that at the selected schools, the "overwhelming majority" of students come from families in poverty.

A parent's perspective

Kelly Taylor, a union carpenter who said he has been without work for four months because of the slow economy, had nothing but praise for the program.

"It gives the students something to really shoot for, she already likes school it makes it better for her to meet her goals," Taylor said. "I can't afford to give $50 for every A."

His daughter, Amanda Navarro, 14, an Uplift freshman, said that although her father constantly tells her he's proud of her for getting good grades, the financial incentives offer an added reward.

"I was already planning on going for the best and getting straight A's; this just gets me more excited to do it," Navarro said. "A 4.0 [grade point average] is good, plus $2,000 is even better."

Chicago patterned its plan on New York's voluntary program started last year. Fourth graders there can make up to $250 a year and 7th graders double that by doing well on tests 10 times a year. But officials there say it's too early to tell whether the program is working.

New York experiment

"In NYC we face tremendous challenges and we have a significant achievement gap . . . so we are not wedded to these programs but we do think its worth exploring, those students who are not getting the motivation at home maybe the school can help. We are giving it a shot; we want to see how this works," said Maibe Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for New York City Schools.

Sol Stern, a researcher at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, said the program in Washington, which also rewards behavior, amounts to a "bribe."

"Don't beat up your teacher—we'll give you money," Stern said.

Uplift Principal Stephanie Moore said that although she first disagreed with the proposal because she did not believe it was right to pay students for their academic success, she changed her mind when she remembered growing up as a public school student in a Chicago family with little money.

"I thought kids should want to get good grades because it's the right thing to do," she said. "Then I saw the kids' enthusiasm and I thought this would be a great incentive for kids who want to do the right thing, who don't want to be on the streets."

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[via chicagotribune]

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