Cash-for-Grades Is Latest Misdirection Play

Published November 1, 2008

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats once wrote, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”

The city education establishments in Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC, beg to differ. The leaders of these abysmally performing systems believe education is indeed the filling of a pail—with money.

Their latest gambit is not aimed at funneling taxpayer dollars into bureaucracies, but instead involves raising private funds to pay students for good grades.

The ‘A’ in ‘Pay’

In September Chicago Public Schools (CPS) became the latest to adopt the “Green for Grade$” test program whereby a control group of 5,000 freshmen at 20 CPS high schools will get cash payments for academic performance: $50 for an A, $35 for a B, and $20 for a C.

In defending the experimental program, CPS Superintendent Arne Duncan cranked up the propaganda machine, telling the Chicago Tribune, “I’m always trying to level the playing field. This is the kind of incentive middle-class families have had for decades.”

Duncan, like others in charge of government monopolies, is defiantly unashamed of his own hypocrisy. For it is Duncan and his friends running the teacher unions who oppose pay-for-performance reforms such as merit pay for teachers who produce real results in the classroom.

Ascribing the best of intentions to this contradiction, one is left to conclude they believe performance incentives stop mattering at some point in a person’s development. My best guess is that this occurs shortly after their National Education Association or American Federation of Teachers union membership card arrives in the mail.

Reasons to Flee

A more reflective person might contemplate why middle-income families, who make up a significant portion of the three million people living in Chicago, have abandoned CPS, as Duncan correctly implies. A system in which only six in 100 students will go on to earn a bachelor’s degree by the age of 25 is a system from which parents will flee if they have the ability to do so.

There are not enough charter schools and magnet schools citywide to meet the demands of families who do not want their children relegated to the failing schools in their neighborhoods. Less than 5 percent of CPS students have the opportunity to attend a charter school.

Underfunded Families

As to Duncan’s feeble “leveling the playing field” contention, most of those who have opted out of CPS now attend schools that spend considerably less than the $11,500 per pupil per year CPS spends. They’ve opted out of the public schools for private and parochial schools, willingly stretching their household budgets to pay the property taxes that fund CPS and the private school tuition so their children will receive a good education.

Those families have chosen to be decidedly “underfunded” relative to their options within CPS. That too should be cause for reflection.

Some critics of the “Green for Grade$” program have said payments for grades get students to do the right things for the wrong reasons and thus will fail to cultivate a real interest in learning. Others have been more pointed, saying the payments amount to bribes.

My criticisms of Duncan’s strained logic aside, I am not philosophically opposed to the idea of welcoming children to the real world of performance-based incentives at an early age. However, I think it counterproductive to pay for mediocrity, and thus I would not attach compensation for Cs.

Real Reform

I agree programs like these do not teach children to be intellectually curious or properly set them on a path to be lifelong learners. Still, though not every child is going to develop an enduring affinity for scholarship, every child must learn to read, write, and develop basic quantitative skills in order to be a productive member of society in the digital age.

The fundamental problem with cash-for-grades programs is that they are yet another bailing-out-the-Titanic-with-a-teaspoon approach to education reform.

As these programs gain traction in our nation’s worst-performing city school systems, we must recognize them for the misdirection plays they are and not allow ourselves to be lured away from a discussion of necessary long-term, systemic school reform.

Dan Proft, J.D. ([email protected]) is a principal of Urquhart Media LLC, a Chicago-based public affairs firm, and political commentator for the Don Wade & Roma Morning Show on WLS-AM 890.