My roommate uses MSNBC for background noise, and all today they kept re-running a program on innovation in America, and how it’s been falling off in recent years, and what we can do to revive it. Of course it fibbled off into What The Government Can Do, but it somehow never mentioned something as simple as improving general education.
For generations now, everyone from Certified Experts to the kids themselves have bemoaned the rotten state of the public schools in America and made suggestions for improving it. Some of those ideas have been tried, and some of them have worked a little.
None of them have worked as well as one idea you’ve probably never heard of.
More than 25 years ago, in one of the Midwestern states beginning with “I”, there was a school district whose ratings were so bad that the school board grew desperate enough to try a truly radical experiment.
It paid the kids to go to school and get good grades.
The kids studied all week and were given tests on Friday. The teachers graded the tests over the weekend and paid the kids on Monday, so any student who wanted money for the weekend had to learn to save it. The kids were paid for every hour they’d spent in class that week, and the amount was determined by their grades. For the high-school students, an A would give them $4 an hour – which, in those days, was legal minimum wage – a B paid $3, a C yielded $2, a D was $1, and an F paid nothing. Junior-high students got half that, and grade-school kids got a quarter of it. Of course, any student who acted up in class got an F for that hour.
Can you guess what happened to the students’ grades, and school behavior?
Yes, grades skyrocketed and discipline problems took a nosedive. Over the course of the school year, the truant officer and several other bureaucrats common to public schools found themselves with nothing to do. The accountant assigned to monitor the experiment reported that the savings on school-property destruction, alone, more than paid for the students’ wages. Most unwisely, he also went on to say that the school could now afford to fire those bureaucrats.
That was the kiss of death. The school board terminated the experiment at the end of the year, swore the teachers to secrecy, then scattered them throughout the rest of the state – and beyond. All records of the experiment, particularly its results, were locked up under every legal seal of secrecy that civilian government officials could get. Ah, but teachers gossip among themselves, especially after they’ve retired, which is how my mother – a music teacher in New Jersey – eventually heard about it.
The lessons to be learned here are obvious. First, paying the kids to go to school, behave themselves and get good grades gets solid results. Second, threatening the jobs of government bureaucrats is dangerous to everyone else.