By Bill Turque
D.C. officials yesterday identified 14 schools where about 2,700 middle schoolers will be eligible for up to $100 a month in cash awards for good test scores and behavior.
The incentive program, called Capital Gains, is a joint venture of D.C. schools and Harvard University. It is aimed at heading off the downward academic spiral that many children experience in the middle school years.
The schools include middle schools (Hardy, Eliot-Hine, Hart, Jefferson, Kelly Miller, Garnet-Patterson-Shaw and Stuart-Hobson) and newly consolidated schools that serve middle schoolers as well as pre-K, kindergarten and elementary students (Brightwood, Browne-Gibbs-Young, Burroughs, Emery, Langdon, Takoma and Whittier).
The selections were made without regard to geographic balance, said Roland G. Fryer, a Harvard economist and principal investigator for the school's American Inequality Lab, which studies issues of poverty and race. Fryer said he built an algorithm that included the 28 District schools serving middle school students and generated about 30,000 possible combinations that gave him two blocs of 14: one to receive the cash incentives, and a control group that would not.
Fryer said the two groupings he selected were the most evenly balanced based on several criteria, including size and level of academic achievement.
"We wanted to make sure that the treatment and control groups were as alike as possible," said Fryer, who leads a similar program in the New York City schools.
The pilot program will be tried in one school in each of Wards 1, 7 and 8; three schools in each of Wards 4 and 6; and five schools in Ward 5. Schools in Wards 2 and 3 were not included.
Starting in early October, eligible students will be able to earn $2 per point up to a monthly maximum of $100 for attending class regularly, turning in homework, good behavior and receiving good grades.
Some details remain unresolved. Each school will set academic benchmarks that will determine the cash payments. Fryer said he will work out other criteria, such as behavior and attendance. A bank will be selected to set up student accounts. The cash will be electronically deposited each month. While children must have their parents' permission to participate, only they will be able to withdraw money.
"Kids can withdraw money as soon as they have it," Fryer said, adding that students will also receive "financial literacy" training to help them make sensible spending decisions. They will not receive ATM cards.
About $2.7 million has been set aside for the venture, with half coming from the District and the rest from a grant to Harvard by the Broad Foundation.
Last week's announcement of the program touched off a debate among parents, educators and officials. Critics said the idea crassly monetizes the pursuit of knowledge and academic achievement. Proponents say it gives students from low-income neighborhoods incentives that have long been available to children in families with more resources. And given the dismal academic record of the District's middle schools, where 36 percent of students are proficient in reading and 33 percent in math, it is worth a try, said D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and other advocates.
It is the latest in what has become a hefty portfolio of pilot programs and proposals launched under Rhee, garnering her national attention as a key figure in the school reform movement. She is pressing the teachers union to adopt a potentially groundbreaking salary plan that would pay many teachers more than $100,000 a year in salary and bonuses if student achievement is elevated.
"My general gut reaction is that they're throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks," said Mary Melchior, a parent and activist at Langdon Elementary who opposes cash awards. "I want my kids to see reading and learning as something they want to do their entire life, not just something they're getting money for doing."
Trevon Dorsey, 12, who began seventh grade this week at Garnet-Patterson-Shaw, was enthusiastic. "I think it's a good way to motivate kids to do good work. . . . I think it's a good idea for the public schools."
Fryer said he will have no hesitation about scrapping Capital Gains if the program does not show results.
"If it's clearly not working, we'll get rid of it," he said. "I'm not building an organization. I'm trying to infuse innovation into reform-minded school districts."
Staff writer Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.