SOUND-OFF: Paying DC Middle-Schoolers for Good Grades

SOUND-OFF presents a current controversy in the news, and invites you to speak your mind.

DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee

DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee

DC is one of three cities that participates in Harvard University’s experimental system called Capital Gains– the others are New York and Chicago. The controversial program allows about 3,000 DC middle school students collect up to $200 per month for good behavior, attendance, completing homework, and achieving good grades. Harvard and the DC taxpayers split the bill- $1.35 million each.

The goal of the program is to reverse the current trend in DC education- 8% of students pass math and only 12% are proficient in English. We’ll see what the results are. The first round of checks, totaling $137,813 and averaging about $43 per student, went out this week.


  • Is it right to bribe kids to do the right thing? DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee views it as “positive incentive.” She adds that there are “incentives to do all the wrong things out on the street, and we believe that having positive incentives for doing the right thing is a good counter balance to that.” Is that a valid point?
  • Is it right to isolate cities like DC for programs like this? Roland Fryer of Harvard compares the incentive based program to the idea of rich families giving their children “shiny red cars at graduation.” DC is an impoverished city in many areas, but it is one of hundreds if not thousands of towns and cities that are suffering academically. Is it okay for DC to use federal funding paid by these other towns and cities on a program like this?
  • Should the spending of the money be monitored? It is wonderful that accounts are being created at SunTrust Bank for the students in the program, and it is even better that the bank is providing free money-management training, but at the end of the day, these middle school students have cash to spend. Isn’t there a risk of some students using the money to “do all the wrong things out on the street?” Would a VISA system with statement oversight work better?


4 Comments so far

  1. jjgoldston on October 19th, 2008 @ 11:22 pm

    To answer the questions in order:
    1. I feel that bribing kids is not the right answer but may prove to be a useful step in the right direction. Maybe two years from now they will have a better incentive program, but by the look of things something needs to be done now.
    2. Isolating DC is not right if the money is federal money but if it is DC taxpayer money then yes the money should stay in DC. If the program works well in DC maybe other areas with poor academics will pick up similar systems and taxpayers will be paying for children in their area.
    3. The children should absolutely be monitored on how they study. If everything must be saved they won’t see the immediate value of doing well and may be less motivated. Giving them one quarter to do what they want with and putting the rest in the bank to be saved until college. But having some monitoring of the money is absolutely necessary otherwise the children will be tempted to blow all the money very quickly.
    just my two cents

  2. battistav on October 20th, 2008 @ 6:50 am

    I think the theory of giving kids an incentive to go to school is a good one, but like you said "DC is an impoverished city in many areas" and this may sound a bit stereotypical of me, but the money might be used in a not-so-harmless way…and it’s not even that, but kids are stupid with money, especially if they don’t have much of it: they blow it on unnecessary things. My suggestion- start a bank account with (for example) $2000 for each student when they enter school. Over time the money will grow, with money being put in if they achieve a certain standard (doing well on standardized tests, etc.) and removing money for offenses (like suspensions). The student can have all the money when they graduate, not a day sooner.

  3. Frank (frankl) on October 21st, 2008 @ 9:30 am

    I have to say I’m on board with this program. Although at first I was a bit skeptical-there is just something off-putting about giving out cash for grades etc. to students-after I got past my squeamishness it came across as a good idea.

    First I don’t think we can blame DC for being "isolated." It’s a program city that was both applied for and had to be accepted. Further-those other towns and cities all have working taxation schemes that don’t have to involve the Federal Government. DC presents a unique experience for a student in a public school-they are all drastically under funded and have no easy fix. If, instead of pissing the money away on more books that no one is going to be in attendance to read, we give it to students who want to show up to school-I have to think "butts in the seats" is more important at this point.

    Secondly, as has been brought up a few times, I think exception needs to be taken to the idea that the poor kids in DC are going to spend the money in a "not so harmless way." Yeah. Some kids might. But that’s ALL kids. NO KIDS are good with money. So to kind of put it on DC in some extra heavy handed way is not fair-especially when in more well to do communities parents and grandparents might be filling that same incentive role by giving kids incentives for doing well in school. I know my parents did and a lot of my friends as well.

    I do like the graduation scheme proposed by battistav but I think the problem again is that kids are short sighted-they sort of need that cash in hand for it all to make sense. While s/he might piss it away as soon as they get it-the point isn’t to make these kids rich but get them to go to school. Eventually going to school all the time should breed a level of maturity that ought to get at least some kids to sock that money away.

    I can’t really imagine what it is to be as poor as some of the kids in DC-the pressure to have money, make money, etc. I do remember how in Middle School and High School I thought (plenty of days) that being there was a total waste of time. I can only imagine how that feeling is exacerbated when there is a sufficient lack of cash not just for you but for your family. If $50 a month will get some of those kids to sit still long enough to get an education I’m all for it.

  4. Anthony Marenna (amarenna) on October 22nd, 2008 @ 6:05 am

    Thanks for weighing in guys. If you want my opinion, I’d say that I’m on board pending the results. If the result is not astonishing after the first year or two, I say scrap it. Almost $2MM is too much for a pseudo-success. My one condition is that there needs to be oversight of some kind. I would not be opposed to the graduation fund idea proposed by battistav (though on a smaller scale), but I would add some kind of non-monetary in-house incentive to hold the kids over and keep them motivated.

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