Paying kids to pass tests gets an F

Published May 30, 2007

Kids are settling into summer vacation, which means for the next couple of months, no one is supposed to utter the F-word.

As in FCAT.

So apologies in advance. But really. Could it come to this?

Times education writer Ron Matus reported this week on a program in small-town Ohio that pays students up to a C-note to pass Ohio's version of the FCAT. (Actually, it doles out fake money good at local businesses. Maybe a hundred bucks in cold hard cash seemed a tad crass.)

While the idea regularly gets quashed when it pops up around here, state Sen. Stephen Wise, a Jacksonville Republican who chairs the Education Appropriations Committee, says he thinks it's worth considering in the next legislative session.

Well, why not? We're so wrapped up in the be-all end-all Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test that we reward schools, principals and teachers for high scores. Why not students?

Sure, and how about five bucks for each sharpened pencil they bring to class? Ten just for showing up?

Yes, plenty of parents hand out cash for good grades. But that's a personal parenting decision, hopefully one tempered with messages on the importance of doing well in school, the value of education, the possibility that learning can be fun, even.

Yes, schools use pizza parties or fast-food gift certificates to motivate students to perfect attendance or stellar grades. But doesn't this seem more celebration than payoff? (Best of all: when a principal agrees to kiss a pig or climb in a dunk tank if students meet a goal like reading a certain number of books. For kids, this is motivation rooted in silliness and a sense of fun.)

Another argument in favor of cash payoffs: It might just work. When schools in Coshocton, Ohio, dangled that cash, math scores jumped and the bonus-eligible students outperformed the others.

Well, lots of things might work as motivators: torture, threatening to smash iPods unless grades are up to snuff, that sort of thing. Doesn't make them great ideas.

I cannot resist here my standard rant about the high school girls who approached my car at a suburban intersection to say they were "accepting donations" for their school trip to Hawaii.

One word, girls: carwash. Two more: me, too.

I don't have kids, and sometimes the ones in my life seem a different species, with their text messaging and computer expertise from birth. Their world goes so much faster, their music and TV seems so highly-sexualized, I wonder when they get to be kids.

And just when I feel hopelessly old school, I see they are kids, awkward or self-conscious or happy the way only kids can be, the way kids have always been.

But what do I know. So I asked some teachers.

"They pay them?" said Jim Goeb, who teaches at Armwood High in Seffner. "I don't think we should get into the business of paying kids for doing what they ought to do."

Shannon Peck-Janssen, a teacher at Freedom High in New Tampa, noted the Ohio money came from a private businessman. Florida would fund this from its already-tight education budget? "Ridiculous!"

And paying kids to do well on a test? Actually, she used the word "bribe."

"What are you teaching them, really?" she said.