Mini Me, Version DCPS

Educators are very big on the concept of modeling.  We find what is effective in a similar situation (with a school, a class, or a student just like mine) and put it into practice in our own situation.  Makes sense — if it is works for someone else, it just may work for me.

But sometimes we can take modeling a little too far, giving the impression we are just mimicking or copying those that others like.  Case in point, DC Public Schools.  For a school district that is supposedly all about innovation and improvement, they seem to be an awful lot like the new student trying to dress, talk, and act like the “cool kid” on the playground.
We saw it last year when DC Mayor Fenty decided he would channel NYC Mayor Bloomberg, appointing a schools chancellor (instead of a superintendent) and choosing a non-traditional choice (former Justice Department official Joel Klein in NYC and New Teacher Project founder Michelle Rhee in DC).  Since, we’ve seen it in Rhee’s dealings issues such as school closings and dealings with the unions and even parental engagement.
Yesterday, though, Rhee officially became Klein’s mini-me.  She announced a new pilot project to “pay” middle school students for showing up for school and doing their work.  If successful, Rhee intends to take the pilot project across all middle schools in DC, offering up crisp Benjamins for students who do their jobs as students.
Let’s forget that there are still unanswered questions about the effectiveness of NYC’s own pilot effort.  What message does it send when we offer middle school students pay for play?
Supporters of such efforts would argue it is simply an equity issue.  Upper-class families have been paying their kids for good grades for years, the line goes, why can’t we give at-risk students the financial incentive to come to class, pay attention, and do their homework.  After all, fair is fair.
Unfortunately, such thinking completely misses the larger picture.  Pay for play is necessary when there is no larger reason for the action.  In recent years, though, we’ve been telling students and their families that a good education is necessary for a good job.  We need more rigorous classes.  We need kids with high school diplomas and postsecondary educations.  We need students with the academic and social skills to succeed.
Step one to getting there is actually showing up for school.  Step two is paying attention.  Step three is doing the work.  Step four is measuring proficiency.  Repeat.  
The reward should be the proficiency and the skill acquisition.  A crisp $100 bill shouldn’t be the incentive for student performance.  If it is, getting middle school students to show up is the least of our problems.
If DCPS wants to borrow from the NYC DOE playbook, it should be focusing on increasing student achievement and closing the achievement gap.  Gimmicks such as pay to play may look good in the local papers, but they simply aren’t going to solve the larger issues facing DCPS and other urban districts.

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