Friday, November 16, 2007

NYC "'Re-Brand[s]' Academic Achievement"

When I taught in an urban school district outside of a major U.S. city in the mid to late 90’s, I often complained that I had no currency with my students. Being marked late, earning failing grades, losing my approval, falling behind in lessons and feeling lost, risking long-term achievement—all currencies my teachers had used on me—did not make much of an impression on some of my more difficult students because they didn’t “buy-in” to the education system.

Well, New York City plans to take the economic metaphor for this problem one step further. As New York Times writer Jennifer Medina explains in “Reaching Out to Students When They Talk and Text,” the city plans to launch a pilot program in twenty-four schools this January that “’re-brand[s]’ academic achievement.”

Medina writes, “The plan, designed by Roland G. Fryer, a Harvard University economist who is overseeing the school system’s program of paying students who do well on tests, was approved by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg last week. Dr. Fryer said he viewed the project in economic terms, arguing that while the administration’s previous efforts have focused on changing the ‘supply’ at schools, this one is proposing to change the ‘demand’ for education by making students want to seek learning.” The city hasn’t settled on an exact plan yet, but essentially, the idea is to give students in the pilot schools a cell phone and send them advertising and text messages, perhaps even celebrity phone calls, all geared towards school achievement. In addition, students will be awarded prizes such as phone minutes and concert tickets for specific achievement. Teachers will be encouraged to provide extra academic sources through the phones as well.

I had a dream about this program last night. I remembered how my high-achieving college roommate found out our sophomore year that her parents started paying her younger sisters $5 for each A they earned. My friend had brought home almost all A’s sans financial reward. She wrote her parents a bill for her twelve years of schooling, which they paid sheepishly. Her sisters have finished high school and college by now, but arguably, my friend still has a deeper love of learning and reading. I thought about capitalism and how it depresses me. Many of my current students resent having to study literature. “How will this help me be a computer engineer? How will this help me be a nurse?” I find students want job training rather than education. The concept of being wealthy with knowledge does not exist as it once did. Many of my students see learning as something to be gotten through in order to earn their threshold salary. It makes me wonder why people of their generation will teach, for the salary isn’t what motivates most of us.

However, then I thought back to the students I didn’t reach because I couldn’t share the concept of deferred gratification during the ten months that I knew them. My parents taught me my love of education. My household of people who played Scrabble and knew so much more during a game of Trivial Pursuit than I did fostered in me a genuine desire to know more. I find New York City’s idea of extrinsic motivation distasteful, but what if it really does save kids? I witnessed first hand how students who feel disenfranchised and who don’t have a strong family to fall back on can just get swept into the current of drugs and crime. Lots of sixteen year olds have things they want; if students don’t think they’ll one day earn them with a paycheck, resisting shoplifting can seem futile. Clearly, this economic program to increase student “demand” is kissing cousins with bribing students, but if it drags them through the high school degree, might it be worth it? Or are we officially proclaiming that it’s just about the money? Will this motivate students to cheat to get their “reward” since actually learning the content still won’t be on the horizon? Is it worth a try?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher


Kelly Jean Walden said...

As a future teacher, I really appreciate this blog. Thanks for all your insight!

Kate Kellen said...

Kelly Jean, I'm so glad you find this helpful; feel free to add your comments any time.