Chicago Offers Students Cash for Good Grades

"Green for Grades" offers students a financial incentive for good marks.

December 01, 2008, 7:59 PM

Dec. 2, 2008 — -- At Chicago's Manley High School, good grades equal green, which has studious pupils like Cierra Banks cashing in on their marks.

"They paying me over $100 to get As," said Banks, 15, who was happy to collect on her five As and one B.

It's part of the "Green for Grades" program, which is a component of the school's graduation incentive plan. The pilot program began in September and applies to 20 of Chicago's 125 public high schools.

Administrators and participating schools hope the money motivator will increase students' chances of succeeding in school and combat Chicago's high dropout rate.

"We have to do everything we can to get our dropout rate down to zero and to do it as fast as we can," Chicago public schools CEO Arne Duncan said.

Half the city's freshmen entering public schools wind up leaving without a diploma. It's a staggering statistic for the nation's third-largest school system, which includes more than 650 schools and about 405,000 students.

Although it's too soon to draw official conclusions, students said they've seen a marked difference in their performances since "Green for Grades" was enacted.

"I'm happy because I'm getting paid for my grades," student Tatierra Strong, 14, said. "And so, I want to work harder."

The students can earn $50 for As, $35 for Bs and $20 for a C in their freshman and sophomore years. So, in theory, a straight-A pupil could earn as much as $4,000.

Teachers evaluate the students every five weeks, and that's when they receive their pay, according to Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Ana Vargas.

Vargas said the estimated cost per student is between $1,000 and $2,000 annually, none of which comes from taxpayers. Donors and a foundation foot the bills for the good grades.

After sophomore year, students are no longer paid for their marks, the idea being that the grades themselves should be incentive enough, Vargas said. Juniors and seniors also get more secondary training, college planning and aid with standardized university entrance exams, like the SAT and ACT.

"We're convinced, if students have a great freshman year, a great sophomore year, our graduation rates would go up exponentially," Duncan said.

For the students hoping to bank good grades and cash, there is one catch; pupils only get half their money up front. The rest comes after graduation.

While students may give the program good grades -- 178 cashed in for a total of $45,000 on the year's first progress reports -- critics contend that offering money for academic achievement is a hindrance.

"The idea that poor kids can only be bribed with money rather than authentically engaged with meaningful learning tasks is insulting and in some cases borders on racist," said Alfie Kohn, author of "Punished by Rewards."

But some parents disagree.

"I don't think it's bribery because she does good in school anyway," parent Beatrice Sullivan said of her daughter. "It's just an extra award that she would get for getting a good grade."

Ronald Fryer, a creator of "Green for Grades" and similar programs in other cities, said the program is no different from what many parents already do.

"Lots of families choose to give their kids allowance when they do well," he said. "We have to try absolutely everything we can to provide ladders of opportunity for our young people."

"All we're saying is it's worth — it's worth a shot. And then we are going to evaluate it and see where we are at that point," he added.

Chicago isn't the only city to pay students for doing well. In Washington D.C., officials started a program earlier this year similar to "Green for Grades."

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