At Shaw-Garnet-Patterson Middle School in Washington, D.C., students like the idea of getting paid for good grades or for just showing up. They have a harder time agreeing on how much they should get.
"A lot. A thousand dollars," one young girl says. "Two hundred," a boy chimes in, " 'cause I got two A's. When asked how much he should be paid for coming to school on time, the student says it's worth $50.
School systems across America are desperate for good ideas to motivate students, and Washington, D.C., is no different. This year, schools in the nation's capital will pay kids if they work hard, behave and get good grades.
The idea is the brainchild of Harvard economist Roland Fryer. He has persuaded several school districts around the country that disruptive, unmotivated students will change their ways if money is used as a carrot.
Fryer's theory, to pay kids to do better in school, comes from many years of research and his own sense of desperation.
"The theory here is to try innovative things that will help children achieve," Fryer says. "In our urban centers, we're spending $12,000, $15,000 a kid, and we're not getting any results. So we must do something."
Brian Betts, the principal at Shaw-Garnet-Patterson, says rumors abound about "Capital Gains," the program developed by Fryer. "The kids think they're all getting Visa cards; that's the first thing I'm trying to squash."
The reality of the program is this: Students will receive points for grades, behavior and attendance. Every point is worth $2.
A student who attends 50 classes on time, for example, can earn one point for every additional class attended on time. Students also get a point for every additional class in which they're not disruptive, profane or disrespectful.
Most importantly, students will earn points for getting good grades. Anything less than a mark of 70 percent on a test or class assignment does not get rewarded.
"You get $1 when you hit 71 percent," Betts says, adding, "If you have 100 percent, you get the full amount: $20. I mean, you're going to work."
The most a student can earn during the school year is $1,500. The total cost for the 15 D.C. schools participating in the program is $2.7 million. Half of that money will come from the school district and the rest from a grant to Harvard from The Broad Foundation.
But it's not about the money, Betts says. It's about finding and flipping that switch that will turn struggling students into motivated ones.
"Every child has a button," he says. "Every child has a switch, and it's our job as educators to find it."
Betts is talking about kids like Daamantae Brown, 14, a tall and lanky eighth grader. He's also a borderline C student and star athlete with a temper that can get him into trouble.
Brown is more afraid of being banned from playing football because of bad behavior or grades than missing out on the cash incentives for good academic and social performance.
Still, the boy says most students will behave as long as the money lasts.
"If the bad students, if they was acting up before this, then after it's done [the program], they're going to act the same," Brown says.
Discipline is not the main problem at Shaw-Garnet-Patterson. Only four out of 10 students there read at grade level.
So is there evidence that money will entice students to improve their reading skills?
"We don't have any data yet," says Fryer. "But all of the programs that I've designed have a treatment group and a control group for comparison. I don't think we should take a stand right now on whether we think it's going to work or not.
"Let's just let the data speak," he says.
Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute, a think tank in New York City, says Fryer's idea is misguided.
"It's a bribe to kids, and it's racist," Stern says. "It's saying to the black community, 'Look, you parents, we know you can't control your kids, you can't institute the right values in your kids, so basically we're just going to pay you off.' Are we really that desperate? Will we literally try anything on kids?"
Fryer calls such comments "ridiculous."
"I mean, the real subtle racism here is the fact that we're continuing to do the same things we've always done, and we're allowing these children not to achieve," Fryer says.
Teachers and administrators at Shaw-Garnet-Patterson seem to think the program is worth a shot.
At a recent meeting, teachers learned how to log every point a student earns. It's more paperwork for the staff, but that's not what bothers social studies teacher Kimberley Khohler.
"A lot of my students — their behavior, their lack of motivation for school work is directly attributed to parental involvement," she says.
Parents who keep their kids focused on school will motivate kids in the long run, Khohler says.
Nearly 70 parents attended a recent parent-teacher conference, the first of the year. One parent, Nikisha Mathews, says she's skeptical about using money to motivate kids such as her son Taylor, a seventh grader.
"I don't think he should be paid to go to school or to perform well in school," Mathews says. "I don't think they should have to be paid, but you know, if that's what they think is going to work, I guess they have to try different things."
Mathews turns to her son and asks him, "Are you making any improvement because you want the money?" After a pause, the boy answers, "No."
Parents can opt out of the Capital Gains program, but so far, no one has. Last week, students got their first paycheck. Students will later have direct-deposit accounts at a local bank. After kids begin comparing how much they've earned, Betts says he'll know if it's a good idea.
And if it's not, the principal says, "then we'll move on to something else."