With alarming failure rates at our nation's inner city schools, one wants to celebrate any attempt to motivate success. Still, sincere efforts must be examined, not according to their intentions, but by their likely or demonstrated results. One new concept that is gaining attention gives kids immediate cash or gifts for completing normal academic tasks, such as homework. While such programs are well-intentioned, hustling minority kids with "bling-bling" is sure to cultivate materialism and deteriorate family relationships.
Harvard economist Roland Fryer developed the Sparks Incentive program in an effort to raise achievement scores for America's black children. In the pay-to-learn scheme, children are redirected from finding intrinsic meaning in their work, and are instead seduced to pursue the vanity of money. The power of learning the value of delayed gratification, one of the most important principles of long-term success in anything, is totally incapacitated.
Last year, the New York City schools, desperate for solutions, hired Fryer as its Chief Equality Officer. His job was to figure out how to narrow the racial gap in achievement in the city's schools. Today, over 5,000 students in the New York City public school system are participating in this privately funded program. In one Brooklyn elementary school, students can earn up to $250 a year. School districts in at least 12 states have similar incentive programs, including the cities of Atlanta, Dallas, and Baltimore.
One misguided school even offers free cell phones as an incentive. Fryer defends this rueful practice saying with "cell phones, [as] financial rewards for kids, we're meeting kids where they are and giving them rewards to do the things that we want them to do." What's next? Free sagging pants? Coupons for weaves, rims, designer jeans, gold chains, and gold-teeth grills?
This type of disregard for the practical effects produced by striving for good ends via dubious means reduces the humanity of entire families. Black kids are more than simply a variable in a complex economic algorithm applied to education philosophy. Black kids are human beings with inherent dignity who must be formed into virtuous adults destined to make a positive contribution to the world within the context of family and community.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege, reports that research shows that giving kids cash for grades is one of the most psychologically damaging approaches to education. Manipulating behavior in this way profoundly sabotages the internal mechanisms needed to form the character and integrity required for adulthood.
Hustling performance with cash can never substitute, Levine argues, "for parental interest, presence, and guidance." It leads to a lessening of parental influence and cultivates greed. One would think that America's public school system would not wish to cultivate "bling, bling" ideology.
Children have a nascent ability to desire and appreciate parental approval. Once upon a time, children were challenged to perform well – or else parents would be involved. Children knowing, early on, that they are accountable to their parents – and that other adults cooperate in that accountability – creates conditions for healthy family life in general.
The late Professor Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon University railed against the deification of material goods as incentives for living well at the univeristy's commencement ceremony on May 18, 2008. Pausch encouraged graduates to pursue meaningful vocations that stirred their spirits. "You will not find that passion in things," he warned, "and you will not find that passion in money."
When asked if giving cash for performance might send a message to children that learning is not its own reward, Fryer responded, "Those are not my concerns. My biggest concern is [that] we don't do anything." Why is cultivating self-centered materialism and breaking down parent/child relationships the only alternative to doing nothing? Herein lies the problem of hiring an economist who may not have the wherewithal to connect economics to the formation of children with character and integrity.
While economics teaches helpful things about the role of incentives, the dignity of children and the integrity of family life cannot be subverted for algorithmic results. Ignoring the character process will give us a generation of children who can perform on exams but have little humanity.