Should cash be used to spur children to do better on reading and math tests?
Suzanne Windland, a homeowner raising three children in a placid enclave of Queens, New York, doesn't think so. Her seventh grader, Alexandra, she said, had perfect scores last year. But she doesn't want New York City's Department of Education to hand her US$500 in spending cash for that achievement.
That's what Alexandra would earn if her school was part of a pilot program that will reward fourth and seventh graders with US$100 to US$500, depending on how well they perform on 10 tests in the next year.
Windland wants Alexandra to do well for all the timeless reasons -- to cultivate a love of learning, advance to more competitive schools and the like. She has on occasion bought her children toys or taken them out for dinner when they brought home pleasurable report cards, but she does not believe in dangling rewards beforehand.
"It's like giving kids an allowance because they wake up every morning and brush their teeth and go off to school," she said. "That's their job. That's what they're supposed to be doing."
Actually, Alexandra will probably not be eligible for the reward because the program, which has been adapted from a similar Mexican cash incentives plan, is aimed largely at schools with students from low-income families. Windland, who grew up for a time on food stamps but now works as coordinator of volunteers for a social services agency, thinks it is unfair that Alexandra will see other seventh graders being rewarded for far lower scores, while she savors only the intangible plums of pride and satisfaction.
Windland predicts that the impact of the program may be paradoxical, with resentment depressing the achievement of hard workers.
"The kids who don't get reimbursed are going to say, `Why should I bother!'" Windland said.
There are parents who support the program. And Schools Chancellor Joel Klein responds to skeptics by arguing that no one has figured out how to get more poorer children engaged in learning. Trumpeting the long-term benefits of education, the better jobs and lives well lived has not worked. Cash just might.
"There are lots of kids who think education is not relevant to them, who think education is a waste of time," he said in an interview.
Still, critics warn Klein to be prepared for a backlash from families, both poor and more well off.
The program will foster "ill will," said Tim Johnson, chairman of the Chancellor's Parent Advisory Council, whose members include Windland.
"The word bribe comes to mind," he said. "You certainly don't want kids with identical abilities, where one gets paid and the other doesn't."
Some parents, like Nakida Chambers-Camille, a school administrative assistant, think the program should be given a shot.
Chambers-Camille has a seventh grader, Leana, at a school that probably won't qualify. Leana, she chuckled, may think that is unfair. But Camille believes such sweeteners may ultimately benefit her daughter.
"If that's going to help the child my child is playing with, then I'm all for it," she said. "I want my child associating with people who have education as a priority. If that child is not learning, that child will pull my child down with her."
But Klein also has some opponents in poorer communities that might benefit. Robert Reed, president of the parents' association of Public School 46 in Harlem, a school where nearly all students qualify for free lunches, called the program "dead wrong" in an e-mail interview, saying children learn "because they want it, not because they're getting paid."
Klein, who grew up in public housing, could recall nothing more in the way of carrots and sticks than an allowance raise or a grounding for one of his bad report cards. His interest in succeeding was quite conventional.
"I wanted my parents' approval," Klein said. "I found education interesting and exciting and I engaged it in those terms. I thought education would create opportunities my family didn't have."
My father said if you want to grow up and not live in public housing, pay attention in school," he said.
The crucial if amorphous role homes play in whether a child succeeds is why Johnson thinks the chancellor should come to grips with the limits of what schools can do.
Other critics of the new program, like Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, think Klein should put the incentives into college funds, saying instant cash undermines the idea of learning for its own sake.
Another parent, Joan Rose Palacios, whose daughter Olivia is a fourth grader in Queens, wondered: "What happens when the money dries up? You pull a carrot away, do they stop working?"
But, she added, she is keeping an open mind because she feels that schools in poor neighborhoods need more aid.
The pilot, devised by Roland Fryer, a 30-year-old Harvard economist who has studied racial inequality in schools, is part of a wider program by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration that will offer cash to adults for keeping a job, maintaining health insurance, attending teacher conferences and getting children to show up at school.
Laura Rawlings, an economist for the World Bank, which finances US$1.2 billion worth of incentive programs in 12 countries like Mexico, says such programs have raised school attendance.
The programs can be favorably seen as a form of income maintenance that replaces pure entitlements by requiring parents to commit to behaviors society prefers. But the Mexican program does not reward children for passing tests. And it may be hard to explain to children, sensitive to any unfairness, why one child is getting money while another with better grades is not.