By Robert W. Andrews
A recent Huffington Post article (http://huff.to/Qn8mMy) highlights a new study that shows how cash incentives encourage low-income students to stay in school to focus on their academics. For my students, who are mostly low-income, money isn’t the incentive. The incentive comes when an adult in their life inspires them to do well. Perhaps educators should invest money into human capital instead of handing out an allowance for those who maintain good behavior? Rewards are good, but if students see that their education will get them somewhere that will be reward enough. I have seen this first hand in schools that are, for lack of a better word, failing.
Clearly poverty effects student performance and we should be creative in attempting to level the playing field. However, what if these same kids the researchers studied, had amazing teachers, innovative principals and longer school days that fostered outside interests through internships, athletics and other activities? Would they achieve the same results? I don’t know, but the latter sounds better to me.
I suppose this is a value judgment. Do you keep the status quo at school, but pay the kids off to behave well and do their homework? Or do you reinvent schools that care for students holistically? When a student sees the same broken window year after year in their school what does that say to the student? When students don’t have textbooks that they can take home to study because the school only paid for one set to be kept in the classroom, how does that affect their learning?
When students see engaged teachers who stay after school to help them understand concepts, would they need to be paid to go back to class? When principals reward teachers for extracurricular involvement, provide space for writing college letters of recommendations, and give them a good balance between structure and freedom, most students are willing to engage without being paid.
I have seen this in one of our partner schools where only about 25% go on to four year colleges. One of the American History and AP Government teachers at Waukegan High School, Joshua Bill, has a cult following among his students. After reading the Huffington Post article, one might think he was paying the kids to work on their mock congress debates, National History Day projects and reading primary texts. Instead, he is just an inspirational teacher. Who would have thought low-income kids would do their work when the only incentive is a powerful role model who is a gifted teacher? Maybe we should spend our resources focusing on giving incentives to the teachers who inspire our kids and help support those struggling teachers who want to go from just being mediocre to fantastic?
Inspiration spreads. Our Scholars, who have a group of adults dedicated to their success, don’t take this privilege lightly. They share the lessons they have learned with their peers, siblings, cousins and just about anyone who will listen. Our Scholars encourage their friends to apply to highly selective colleges with them. This past year, a number of their peers, without any other assistance beyond our Scholars, were accepted and now attend amazing colleges.
Paying kids to attend school feels a lot like hush money. Giving cash to the neediest kids silences them. With this incentive, they won’t speak out against the inferior educational experience we are giving them. Instead we should deal with the uncomfortable reality that not all adults are doing right by our kids. We need to invest only in adults who care and go the extra mile for our students. This is more difficult, but certainly more transformational to a system in serious need of change.