Friday, August 22, 2008

why michelle rhee is ill-suited for the job

this isn't the first time i've heard of something like this, but it's certainly one of the most misguided and broadly applied to raise attendance and test scores. what am i talking about? paying kids to do well in school. no, not by their parents, as it were. by a school district. first off, a little background. michelle rhee is the oft-maligned school chancellor for d.c. public schools. since taking office, she's closed schools, fired teachers, reassigned many more. she's a reformer, and the press seems to have a love-hate relationship with her policies and ideas.

so, i see this on the news last night.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee announced plans yesterday to boost dismal achievement at half the city's middle schools by offering students an unusual incentive: cash...Now they are introducing a program that will pay students up to $100 per month for displaying good behavior

the biggest problem i see with this is that it switches motivation to do well from intrinsic to extrinsic. intrinsically, we do things we enjoy without obvious external influences. the best students are intrinsically motivated and actually enjoy learning. granted, the targeted kids don't have much of either, but is giving them an extrinsic reason to learn in their formative years really the best solution?

she reasoned in her press conference that this will prepare them for the work force because school is their job. this is where the parents come in, not the government. school is school, not a job. it prepares you for society and (hopefully) a job later in life. parents are the ones that are supposed to instill the value of education in their kids. sure, i knew kids who got money for good grades in middle school and high school. they did what they had to do to get good grades. did they retain much of what the learned? i doubt it. my parents never even considered such measures, nor did many of my friends'. those friends and i are the ones who still read books for pleasure in adulthood, can carry on intelligent conversations, and take pleasure in being well-informed. i'd venture to guess that many of the intelligent young professionals that populate this great city fit the same mold.

i had a student in florida several years ago that was wholly unmotivated to work hard or participate in school. he bounced between the homes of his oft-jailed father and his never-quite-sober mother and his grandmother. my year with him, he was mostly with his mother, and it was all he could do to make it to school on time with a good night's rest and something to eat for breakfast. he had repeated first grade and was still far below grade level in most subjects. during career month, the students all had to learn about what they wanted to be when they grew up. his lack of motivation in school showed, "why should i pick a job? i'm just going to go to the mailbox once a month just like grandma."

no, it's not easy to motivate kids these days, even with good parenting. that's the point, there's no easy solution to making kids want to learn. great teachers, role models, and parents all fit into the equation. school chancellors that make it rain so the kids behave? not likely.

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