. . . Tuesday August 10, 2004

Pay Them

When I taught high school, another one of the teachers with whom I worked (who was probably the best teacher in the school) maintained a common refrain when it came to increasing the performance of students.

Pay them.

Does that sound crazy? Why? Why shouldn’t inner city students get paid for their performances when they are overcoming more difficult odds and they all know that the payoff for doing well is far less certain for them than it is for a white kid from a wealthy suburb?

And that wealthier, white kid is getting paid isn’t he? I did. I got money for good grades on my report card. But it went beyond that. For playing by the rules and keeping up with school (which in my school and with my limited outside pressures was strikingly easy), I got spending money, a car to drive and much more.

And I never had to take ribbing or ridicule or worse, for doing well. And I never had to be concerned about getting shot on the way home from school. And my school didn’t have metal detectors. And my teachers, while not great, were not terrible. And college was an expectation, not a longshot. And I never had to sleep on the floor of a one room apartment in a terrible building in a terrible and dangerous neighborhood and still be expected to spend my free time (and in a world filled with uncertainty and chaos, there is precious little time to spare) on homework.

It’s easy to talk about personal responsibility when you grew up in a good neighborhood. Don’t forget that. And those who feel the urge can skip the liberal label. I’ve been there. I motivated the hell out of my students and pushed some of them to their limits. But this isn’t an in-class pep talk. This is reality.

Some districts (with the help of outside organizations) are experimenting with the pay for performance model. Teachers get paid more when their kids do well on tests and kids get paid when they reach certain milestones.

In other words, teachers get bonuses based on performance just like people in other jobs do. And kids from crap districts get rewarded for doing well just like (although to a much lesser degree) kids from good districts do.

I do worry that some of the payouts are tied to test-taking performance. Often teachers will teach to a test at the expense of teaching more valuable skills and lessons.

And what about the problem of soiling what we all hope would be a kid’s desire to do well in school because learning is important and an education is the key to a more fulfilling life? If your kid and you have the time to debate ideas like that then you’re not in one of these districts, so don’t worry about it. That argument is almost as crazy as the one made by those who suggest a poor, black athlete should pass up a multi-million dollar signing bonus so he can complete his education. It’s so insane and so covertly racist it doesn’t even deserve an answer.

Is paying the students the answer to the education problems in this country’s worst districts and schools? Hell no. It may even hurt in some ways because it will drive another wedge between the few kids who can succeed and the many who cannot (through no fault of their own) reach the same heights. But it’s worth considering. If you gave me $2 million bucks to make a difference in an underachieving district in a single year, I’d seriously consider paying kids to show up, do their work and behave like a person who sees some upside in the future.

That’s just how I felt in school. Why shouldn’t everyone get to feel that way?

Concentration is important!