Chicago Public School’s system should not turn into Chicago public money

By Katie Dunne

The Chicago Public School system owes me $4,500. That’s 18 semesters worth of straight A’s at 50 bucks a pop. Checks can be made payable to Kathryn M. Dunne; I will also accept cash or money order.

The latest ingenious idea of CPS, entitled The Paper Project, assigns monetary value to scholastic achievement. An A on a report card earns a CPS freshman $50, a B is worth $35, and the average students out there will receive $20 a C. Half of the money will go directly into the hands of the students, and the other half can be redeemed after graduation.

The priorities of CPS never cease to amaze me. While countless public schools stand in disarray, qualified teachers flee to the suburbs, classrooms overflow with students and school lunches remain only partially edible, Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan sees no problem spending $17 million padding the pockets of ninth-graders.

CPS spokespeople call the program “incentive-based.” I call it a glorified bribe with an administrative stamp of approval. “You improve our reputation; we’ll make it worth your while.”

A cash-for-grades deal distorts the true purpose of education, which is intellectual self-improvement. It instills materialistic values in our youth, the same values that are traditionally at odds with high school curricula. Rather than learning for the sake of learning, kids will be learning for the sake of shopping.

The Paper Project is a band-aid solution. It assumes that poor performance is the direct result of laziness and lack of interest and does not address underlying causes. It disregards students who face significant academic challenges, those that are learning English as a second language, have disabilities or are exposed to drugs and domestic violence. For some kids, A’s will remain out of reach, regardless of their dollar value. These students will be penalized while their peers earn up to $4,000 by sophomore year.

The Paper Project will be tested at 20 of Chicago’s poorest schools where risk factors for academic failure are common. In many such neighborhoods, gang membership is a way of life. What will stop inner-city students, with little supervision and easy access to drugs, from using their school paycheck to finance dangerous habits? And what will stop gangs from preying on relatively wealthy 14-year-olds?

More than a fat wallet, students at risk for academic failure need individualized lesson plans, one-on-one tutoring and extra support.

As for the kids who have few risk factors working against them, whose D’s and F’s can be attributed to laziness or lack of interest, money will not provide an incentive to learn. More than likely, it will provide an incentive to cheat. Didn’t study for this test? Didn’t finish last night’s homework? Good thing Susie did!

I do not deny that economic incentives can be effective. There will undoubtedly be some students whose scores improve as a result of this program. But overall, CPS is taking a flawed approach.

Instead of handing students a check at the end of the semester, why not open savings accounts? An A average means a certain amount of money is deposited in the account at the end of each semester, and only high school graduates can access the money. This prevents kids from waving checks in each other’s faces and ostracizing those who do not perform as well. It provides an incentive to continue learning beyond high school, especially for students whose families cannot afford a college education. Rather than relying on instant gratification, it teaches kids the importance of saving.

Education, at a fundamental level, is about a desire to improve oneself. We go to school not only to prepare ourselves for economic success in the future, but to learn how to be confident individuals and valuable contributors to society. It is a disservice to Chicago’s children to equate grades with monetary value while classroom walls crumble around them.

We owe these students more than $50 per A. We owe them a quality education.

Katie is a Senior in political science and Spanish and she’ll be waiting for her check in the mail.