Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Money For Grades

From an article in the New York Times:
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said yesterday that he was considering a proposal to give some city students free cellphones and to reward high performance with free airtime, but emphasized that he had no intention of lifting the ban on cellphones in the schools.

“It’s something we’ll take a look at,” the mayor said of the proposal being pushed by Roland G. Fryer, a Harvard economist who joined the Education Department this year as chief equality officer. But, he added, “We have absolutely no intention whatsoever of letting students use cellphones” in schools. “That’s not what that proposal was all about.”

Dr. Fryer is also the architect of the city’s plan to pay cash to students in several dozen schools who do well on standardized tests, a step connected to the mayor’s broad antipoverty efforts that give families money as a reward for certain behavior. Dr. Fryer spoke of the cellphone plan during a lecture to his undergraduate economics class last month.
Some commentary from Slate:
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg brought only condemnation upon himself when he announced last Thursday that he is thinking about giving free cell phones and minutes to some public-school students who perform well on tests. The proposal is part of a larger effort (financed with private money and means-tested) to pay students in low-income schools for testing well.

The political spectrum united to oppose the whole idea. The Manhattan Institute's Sol Stern said paying for test performance undermined learning for its own sake. New York University historian Diane Ravitch called it "anti-democratic, anti-civic, anti-intellectual, and anti-social." Leo Casey of the United Federation of Teachers objected that "money can't buy you learning." On his show, Stephen Colbert teased city schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, "As long as you're going to be paying kids and making it seem like a job, why not just bring back child labor?"

In fact, Bloomberg is on to something. The cell-phone bribe and the pay-for-test-scores scheme, which provides up to $500 a year for seventh-graders who do well on 10 exams, are the brainchildren of black economist Roland G. Fryer. An assistant professor at Harvard who also serves as the New York City Education Department's chief equality officer, Fryer himself grew up in difficult circumstances (his mother left when he was very young, and his father spent time in prison for sexual assault). But Fryer succeeded, and he became interested in finding out what incentives would motivate more students growing up in like circumstances to do well. His ideas are an intriguing combination of tough and liberal approaches: tough because they take a hard-nosed rather than romantic view of education, and liberal in that the goal is to raise the achievement of low-income kids and foster social mobility.
A curious and innovative approach to education policy that provokes a lot of thoughts and mixed reactions from me, very few of which I'll bother to chase down in this post. One that reflexively comes to mind is about the different values and cultures to education and learning that are supposed to exist between (particularly) Asian cultures and America -- where young Asians, through a mix of necessity, shame, fear, competitiveness, and passion, supposedly value learning fundamentally differently than their American counterparts. But the more curious reaction is that, this idea doesn't seem like it's that bad, or even that crass, and I'm always impressed with Bloomberg's willingness to trot out and try new solutions, however odd they may appear. I say, give it a try. We could spend our money on worse things...

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