9.16.2008

Rhee's Solution: D.C.'s Schools on the Incentive Plan

by Suzie Raven

Countless school directors have tried, and failed, to clean up the miserably sub-par D.C. public schools. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee has a new idea: she’s going to provide a cash incentive for student behavior, such as class attendance and turning in homework. (Rhee also has a separate incentive plan for teachers. For more on that, please see: "The Battle to Fix D.C.'s Schools: Rhee vs. the Teachers.") I’m sure it will improve student performance, but it’s a surface level solution. It won’t fix problems with the schools themselves.

Instead of punishing bad behavior through detention and summer school, D.C. middle schools will reward good behavior. Each student can earn up to 50 points a month, each worth $2, for things like turning in homework and regular attendance. Rhee started it in middle school because the age sets up behavior that leads a student to either drop out of high school or shine academically.


A similar cash incentive program in Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Kentucky, and Virginia pays high school students up to $500 for earning a "three" or more on Advanced Placement (AP) tests. A study by a Cornell University economist said the program increased test scores and the number of students who went on to attend college.

It makes sense that if it worked for comprehensive AP tests, it can motivate a 13-year-old to do math homework. People work better when given incentives. In D.C. schools, where the parents are often unable and/or unwilling to provide incentives to their children, Rhee’s new program will supply them.

But to suggest that this will solve all of the D.C. schools' problems is to insinuate that the student performance is the only problem. Implementing only this program would ignore the number of schools that are literally falling apart with little hope of being repaired. It would ignore that the administration can’t handle the most basic functions. Some school offices don’t have an accurate list of students and employees.

Take these two examples, selected from a long list of atrocities chronicled in a Washington Post investigation:

· "Principals reporting dangerous conditions or urgently needed repairs in their buildings wait, on average, 379 days — a year and two weeks — for the problems to be fixed. Of 146 school buildings, 113 have a repair request pending for a leaking roof, a Washington Post analysis of school records shows.

· "The schools spent $25 million on a computer system to manage personnel that had to be discarded because there was no accurate list of employees to use as a starting point. The school system relies on paper records stacked in 200 cardboard boxes to keep track of its employees, and in some cases is five years behind in processing staff paperwork. It also lacks an accurate list of its 55,000-plus students, although it pays $900,000 to a consultant each year to keep count."

(To see all of the articles in the investigation, click here.)

How can a school reward attendance if it doesn’t even know who should be in class? Yes, Rhee’s incentive program might give students a reason to attend. But what good does that do if the teachers don’t have a clue about where these kids should be?

If a car has a broken seatbelt and a crappy engine, fixing the seatbelt is a fabulous idea. When the engine fails, the seatbelt could save the passenger's life. However, the engine still failed. Similarly, the incentive program is a great idea. Improving student motivation is necessary and important, but the school system still needs its engine fixed.

(The photo is by D.F. Shapinsky for PINGNews/Shapinsky MultiMedia via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. The PINGNews homepage is located here.)





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