Chicago Sun Times - Good Grades Pay Off

September 11, 2008

By Rosalind Rossi and Lisa Donovan

Straight A's can translate into earnings of $4,000 and straight Cs can yield kids $1,600 under a new program debuting this year in 20 Chicago public high schools.

Every five-week reporting period, freshmen and sophomores can earn $50 for each A, $35 for each B and $20 for each C in five subjects: English, math, science, social science and physical education.

But kids will only get half their earnings upfront. They have to graduate to receive the other half.

Some critics immediately blasted the program -- the brainchild of the Education Laboratory at Harvard University -- as "bribery,'' but Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan insisted otherwise.

"It's incenting, recognizing and rewarding hard work and a commitment to education,'' he said. "I want to pull out the stops.''

Duncan said the program -- funded through private donations -- is intended to discourage failure during the first two years of high school, when kids are most at risk of dropping out, and to encourage kids to graduate.

Any F during the freshmen or sophomore year disqualifies students from cash rewards for that marking period, although they can reap rewards later if they re-take and pass their failing class.

The program offers 5,000 eligible students the kind of financial carrot that many middle- and upper-class families provide, but many CPS parents can't afford, Duncan said.

"This is cutting edge,'' Duncan said. "It's pushing the envelope. But it's exactly the right thing to do."

And, Duncan said, CPS hopes to add additional incentives in junior and senior year, perhaps tied to ACT preparation classes or ACT scores.

One critic attacked the program as "bribery" and "lunacy."

"It's a sad day when Harvard University thinks this is a good idea,'' said Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education. "I wonder if Harvard will be paying their students to get good grades.''

But some kids liked the idea.

Sharron Mirco, a senior at Senn High, said the cash rewards could help kids who earn good grades but can't afford college. Sharron said she's a C student, but she would push herself to earn Bs.

"This is definitely an incentive,'' Sharron said. "I think that's a fantastic idea.''

Fabian Young, a sophomore at the Al Raby, said he's all for it.

"I may be a little biased,'' Fabian said. "I have straight As.''

Other schools participating are: UPLIFT, Best Practice, Bowen Environmental Studies, Bowen Global Visions, Chicago Discovery Academy, Chicago Military, School of Entrepreneurship, Douglass , School of Leadership, Hirsch, Hope, Hubbard, Kennedy, Kelvyn Park, Manley, Phoenix Military, Richards, Senn and Simeon.

No taxpayer money will be spent on the program. Instead, Duncan said, the Broad Foundation is donating startup dollars, and CPS will be seeking additional contributors.

The initiative, called the Paper Project, is one of several innovative education programs Harvard University will be monitoring this year. Similar incentive programs are now operating in New York City and Washington, D.C., CPS officials said.

It also is one of two Green for Grade$ programs now operating in CPS schools. The first such program, unveiled last June, offered 350 students money for college if they hit certain academic attendance.

See also: Incentives