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Math can pay off for HISD kids โ€” and parents

Ohanian Comment: I reject the notion of "the deserving poor." If the Houston school district has extra money, then they should distribute it--with no strings attached--to people who need it--instead of putting $1,020 up for grabs.

Reader Comment: What a f-ing discrace! HISD giving away money for grades. This is not teaching students anything other than how to manipulate the system or take advantage of others. Good job you idiots.

By Ericka Mellon

Fifth-graders at select Houston ISD schools will get richer for passing math tests รข€” and their parents will get paid, too รข€” under a rare experiment to try to boost student performance with cash incentives totaling as much as $1,020 per family.

The Houston school board signed off Thursday on the $1.5 million program, which is funded by the Dallas-based Liemandt Foundation. The incentives will go to students and parents at 25 elementary schools that rank among the lowest in math achievement.

The pilot program รข€” thought to be the first that offers joint incentives for parents and students รข€” will allow fifth-graders to earn up to $440 for passing short math tests that show they have mastered key concepts, according to the draft proposal. Parents will get slightly less money for their children doing the work, and they can earn an extra $180 for attending nine conferences with teachers to review the youngsters' progress.

Combined, the students and their parents can pocket $1,020.

"This is trying to say (to parents), 'We want you to be involved with this math process,'" said Chuck Morris, HISD's chief academic officer. "And it is an incentive for them to take that time to go to the school.

"In many cases, where we have parents who are working hard and are barely making ends meet - 80 percent of our kids are on free- and reduced-lunch - why shouldn't we help them in order to be more involved?"

Parents can opt out of the pay program, which also is expected to include money for teachers - up to $40 per student - for holding the parent conferences. The Houston Independent School District already has the nation's largest program that rewards teachers and school staff for boosting students' scores on standardized tests.
Public support is low

HISD has identified 70 elementary schools that could be eligible for the incentive experiment based on their low percentages of students scoring at the "commended," or advanced, level in math on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Principals and teachers will have to commit to the project for their campuses to be among the 25 chosen.

Nationwide, public support is low for school districts paying students for specific behaviors, such as reading books, attending class or getting good grades, according to the 2010 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll. About one in four Americans favor the idea. A similar number said they had paid their own children for academic accomplishments.

Houston mom Adela Ruiz, who has a son at one of the eligible schools, Frost Elementary, had a mixed reaction to the incentive plan.

"Maybe it will encourage the kids to do better - to work a little harder - and get the parents more involved in their child's education," she said, smiling when told the payout could top $1,000.

Then, she added, "Parents really shouldn't have to get paid to get involved in their children's education. It's their responsibility."

Dovion McCardle, a fourth-grader at Frost, giggled upon learning about the cash and then answered practically about what she would do with it.

"It's going to be good because you get to collect money for college," she said.

The Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University is partnering with HISD to study the pay program. The lab, led by Roland Fryer, an economics professor, has done other studies on student incentives in Chicago, Dallas, New York City and Washington, D.C.

The other programs yielded mixed results, with improved student performance in Dallas and Washington.

The Houston program appears to be based on the Dallas work. Second-graders in Dallas were paid $2 for each book they read once they passed a simple quiz to confirm they had done the reading. Fryer's study found that the students who were promised money improved in reading comprehension and language more than those who weren't offered the reward.

In HISD, the students and their parents will get $2 for each math objective the child masters. Students will get practice math assignments on a total of 200 concepts and then will take a five-question test. They will get the money for correctly answering at least four questions on each, according to the draft proposal.

Parents will get their money in the form of debit-like cards. The district plans to encourage the students to get their money directly deposited into a savings account that HISD will help set up. Workshops on savings and financial management are included in the project.

HISD Trustee Paula Harris said she wanted to make sure the district set goals for what results it expects from the incentive program.

"That being said, I think it is a wonderful research project," she added.

The Harvard researchers will compare the results of students at the schools paying students with those at similar HISD campuses that are not participating. The analysis will include scores on standardized tests, student behavior, attendance and teacher outcomes such as retention and migration, according to the draft proposal.

Professor is skeptical

The idea of paying parents intrigues Dan Ariely, a Duke University professor who studies human behavior, but he said he expects little long-term benefit from the cash rewards for students.

"The parents actually have some control over the kids," he said. "They can tell the kids to study."

For the students, he said, the monetary incentive will do nothing to instill in them a love of learning. "What is questionable is whether you could create short-term learning or not," he added.

HISD has put another pay experiment on hold. That plan, which had been slated to start this year at the nine campuses in Superintendent Terry Grier's Apollo 20 reform program, would have paid students for attending Saturday tutorials. Morris said Thursday that the district is halting that plan for now because the schools already have a longer day and year, so the weekend tutoring might not be worth the expense.

Houston Chronicle





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