MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few Mocha Moms. We visit with members of this mother support group each week for their comments and some savvy parenting advice.
School has started, and with that comes schedules, homework, and a hope for good grades. But a history of underperformance in some school systems has some school chiefs thinking of innovative ways to get their grades up to par. One approach involves cash, paying some students for consistent attendance and good grades. We recently spoke with Washington, D.C.'s school chancellor, Michelle Rhee, and this is what she had to say about cash incentives.
Ms. MICHELLE RHEE (School Chancellor, Washington, D.C.): I think the message that it sends to student is, if you work hard, and you do the right thing, and if you achieve at high levels, then you'll be rewarded for that.
MARTIN: As you might imagine, our conservation with Michelle generated a lot of interest, and some parents said not so fast. Is using cold hard cash the best way to encourage kids to do well? So who better to talk about this than our Mocha Moms. So we're going to check in with them, Jolene Ivey and Cheli-English Figaro our regulars, along with special guest mom Nakelia Field, to see what they think. Ladies, moms, welcome.
Ms. JOLENE IVEY (Mocha Mom): Hey, Michel.
Ms. CHELI ENGLISH-FIGARO (Mocha Mom): Hi, Michel.
Ms. NAKELIA FIELD (Mocha Mom): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So, Jolene, let me start with you. Five boys, did you ever pay them for grades?
Ms. IVEY: I haven't, although...
MARTIN: Good grades. I assume you don't pay for lousy grades. I mean, I think that kind of goes without saying.
Ms. IVEY: They better not be bringing in any lousy grades, OK. But, you know, when I was a kid, my dad did pay me and my brothers for grades. If we got, you know, an A, maybe we got a dollar. And a B, maybe we got 75 cents. I don't really remember, but that is not why I was a good student, and I don't know if the pay thing helps or not.
I haven't done it with my kids. They've gotten good grades anyway. And mostly, I don't do it with my kids because I can't really afford to give them anything substantial. But I don't have any problem with it. I mean, whatever works to get kids to do well, I don't have a problem with it.
MARTIN: Cheli, what about you?
Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: I don't pay my children. You know, although, I have to say, I do equate academic success to financial gain. But it is in the future. I mean, all the time, I say, listen, you've got to get good grades so you can get into college, so you can get a good job, so you can make a lot of money, so you can have a nice house like we have right now. And so, my children are incentivized at home.
And just last week or two weeks ago, when we saw the Jonas Brothers in concert, and I said, hey guys, you know, we're sitting here at the Jonas Brothers with tickets on the floor. Guess how much this cost? Guess how many patients your daddy had to see, you know, to get these wonderful seats?
MARTIN: I'm kind of wondering why I wasn't invited? Were you invited? I wasn't...
Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: It was a really good concert.
Ms. IVEY: I wouldn't want to be invited, sorry.
MARTIN: OK, anyway, we digress. But you are constantly making the connection between performance and result with your kids.
Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Absolutely. Absolutely.
MARTIN: Have you ever thought about paying?
Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: No.
MARTIN: Nakelia, I think you do pay your kids for grades.
Ms. FIELD: Well, no. This is the first time I decided to pay them because last year, they weren't doing very well. And I think that's because I did go full-time to work, and, you know, I am a single mom and everything. And this year, I wanted them to have grades and be happy to come straight home and do their homework. So I don't really believe in paying them, but I felt like I wanted to see if there was going to be a difference in them wanting to do their work than just play around.
MARTIN: How old are they?
Ms. FIELD: 12, 9, 7 and a half.
MARTIN: 12, 9, and 7 and a half. What are you thinking about in terms of the reward?
Ms. FIELD: I'm going to give them $50 apiece for each quarter that they get all straight A's.
MARTIN: Straight A's?
Ms. FIELD: Yes.
MARTIN: You set a high bar.
Ms. FIELD: Yes.
MARTIN: I asked Washington, D.C's school chancellor Michelle Rhee where this sort of idea came from and she said, well, first of all, this is kind of organic to the way a lot of families live anyway, even if they aren't explicit about it. But she also said that some of the thinking came from economist Roland Fryer, who's currently teaching at Harvard University. He was interviewed by CNN's Soledad O'Brien for her recent series, Black in America, and this is what he said about that.
Dr. ROLAND FRYER (Economics, Harvard University): The fact is that these kids understand money already at fourth grade. But they don't understand how education is going to help them get that. And so this program makes that connection very explicit.
Ms. SOLEDAD O'BRIEN (Reporter, CNN): Do you think, if by getting paid for your test, you're ruining your love for learning?
Unidentified Crowd: No!
Ms. O'BRIEN: Wow, that was a resounding no. Oh, my goodness.
Unidentified Child: It's just encouraging us to do more work. It's not ruining our chances of getting good grades. It's actually highering it.
MARTIN: Hello, it's highering it. But...
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: But I understand what she was saying. I want to point out that in Washington, D.C., the proposal was to pay middle school kids. And I asked about, you know, why is that - just precisely the years that yours are, Nekelia, and that's because - Michelle Rhee said that that's because that is such a vulnerable age. This is where kids start to fall off the pace. They become more exposed to sort of other interests, you know, the video games and other things of that sort. So, Jolene, I was curious about what age do you remember - at what age your dad started offering cash for grades? It sounds to me like it was probably right around right the same time.
Ms. IVEY: I think that I was in elementary school, and mostly, I think he started doing it to try to get my brother's grades up. And it didn't work for him, but I don't think that we were the right kids to direct it at. I mean, it really depends on the kid. It really depends on what motivates you.
MARTIN: But what about people who say that this creates too mercenary a relationship between studying and result, that what you really want is kids to pick up that book on their own, to really love discovering things, to really enjoy learning for its own sake.
Ms. IVEY: I agree with that, that you do want kids to get that kind of reward from it. On the other hand, you have to find something that's going to work. So whatever's going to work is something that you should try.
The thing that I worry about is people putting too much emphasis on doing well in school, and therefore, you're going to make a lot of money when you grow up. Well, you might not. You might be a teacher and not make a lot of money but have a really satisfying job that you love. And that's more important to me, that you be happy, that you be fulfilled, that you have choices. And to have choices is what you're really after, not to make a million dollars a year.
MARTIN: Cheli, what about you? Do you think it's a bad idea?
Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: No. I don't think it's a bad idea. I think that we do it intrinsically, anyway. I think parents who want their children to succeed so that they can support themselves, whatever it is - it's a teacher, it's a firefighter, whatever it is, if they're happy, and they're getting a career, and they're paying their bills, then that's the goal.
The goal is to get the children out of your house and into their own home and paying their own rent. So, if you're moving toward that, and you are having to connect the fact that, guess what? Rent has to be paid. In order for rent to be paid, someone has to make some money. How do you make money? And so you have to sort of look backwards, walk backwards from the goal.
MARTIN: Nakelia, are you concerned that the kids are going to expect to be paid every time they do the right thing, in school or out of school?
Ms. FIELD: No. Well, I feel like, for school, that's very important to me. I want them to be the best at school. I want them to have, at some point, at some point want to pick up their books. So if I'm not there always looking over your shoulder, I want you to know that you do have to come in. You do have to do your homework. You do have to pass those tests that you have to take, and you will be rewarded. But everything else is, you better do it, and that's it. There shouldn't be any in-between.
MARTIN: In a way, you're saying you're communicating just how important this is to you?
Ms. FIELD: As far as school is concerned.
MARTIN: If school is a big deal to mom, and you are willing to go into you pocket, and I assume that this is not easy for you. That's not an amount that's easy to fork over every semester for three kids.
Ms. FIELD: Well, this is the first semester, and I mean, I told them, first quarter, $50. And then, at the end of the school year or maybe the second quarter, I give you another. And then I will have to see that you're really doing good, and then you could get the rest of your money, just to let them know that they are going to get it. So it's going to make them work hard and say, OK, well, I'm going to get that money. I can do it. I could buy that game. I could do this. I could do that. And I hope it does affect them, and it does make them do better as far as students go.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm talking with the Mocha Moms about paying cash for good grades. Jolene, any thoughts about this as a matter of policy? On the one hand, there's Nakeila, who's willing to go into her pocket and lay down a marker because that's important to her. On the other hand, as a state legislator yourself who participates in making policy, do you have any thoughts about that? I mean, I wonder, do you think it puts pressure on other parents who aren't willing to do it? Or do you think maybe that is the best reason for the school system to do it, so it takes it off the table for individual parents who might not feel that they can actually do this?
Ms. IVEY: And there are a number of states who are looking into that. New York is already starting their second year, Chicago, Washington, D.C., as you pointed out. So I think that they're already - it's in the public policy arena, and I'm interested to see what happens with it, what the result is.
I guess there might be some parents who actually don't want their child to participate. But to make it available, I think, is a great thing because, for the parents who truly can't afford or don't think it's important like Nakeila does, who don't care so much what their kids get, what kind of grades they get, maybe it's going to be helpful for those kids. You kind of take the parents out of the equation, in a way. But if the parents want to take their kids out and say, no, they can't participate, I'm assuming that they should have that option.
MARTIN: What about the idea of making sure that the kids actually get that money and not their parents. I mean, there's that whole situation with child actors back in the day where the parents got the earnings and the kids didn't. I don't know if there's any way to address that.
Ms. IVEY: I think they are directing the money directly to the kids, and there are also some programs that are directed to the parents, that if the parent can be employed full time for this period of time, they're going to pay the parents a couple of hundred bucks apiece to try to motivate some parents who don't have the same kind of inner compass that we do, who, you know, we really, really, really want work.
MARTIN: Or whose perhaps life circumstances are such - I'm thinking about - some jurisdictions are thinking about paying parents to come to parent-teacher meetings.
Ms. IVEY: Yeah.
MARTIN: But I think you said something important that I want to point out. You said that you want to see what the result is. Are you saying, also, that you feel that you should really study the results to see whether you're actually getting the results for the money that you're putting out?
Ms. IVEY: Right. Money is tight, not just in people's homes, but for governments, and if you're going to put in that kind of investment, then you have to know what the result is. Are the kids doing better in school? Are their grades going up? Are they testing higher? If you're getting that kind of result, then you're getting the bang for your buck that you want. But if it turns out that it's not working, obviously, I would think that those programs would be scrapped.
MARTIN: And Nakelia, in fact, it sounds to me like that's kind of what you're doing in your own household. You've set up kind of a controlled experiment.
Ms. FIELD: Yes.
MARTIN: What if they don't make all As, and what if there's one B or C in the mix? Have you figured what you're going to do?
Ms. FIELD: You get paid for a hard B, B plus. A's, you're definitely getting paid for. C, maybe you'd get $5, I don't know. I haven't really calculated it. But if it's a hard C, if it's real hard and I know that you was already having problems in that class, and I know that you was going strong for it, I would give a little something for it.
MARTIN: It sounds to me like somebody has already been negotiating.
Ms. FIELD: You know what? My daughter already got her progress reports before, and she did get seven A's and one C. And I was very happy to see that. I mean, it's only been three weeks since school.
MARTIN: Seven A's and one C.
Ms. FIELD: Yeah.
MARTIN: That raises a question from me, Nakeila. Did the parents - did you talk to the teachers about your plan and get any feedback?
Ms. FIELD: No. This is something between me and my children because I didn't want the teachers to have anything to do with it. They're going to do it by themselves. They're going to work hard, and they're going to be great students. They're going to be very respectful, and that is like a well-versed student out of my children. So it's just us. We sat around, had a family meeting, and this is what we came up with.
MARTIN: I think we should check back at the end of the semester and see what happened, don't you?
Ms. FIELD: How about it? That'd be great.
MARTIN: Jolene, final thought from you?
Ms. IVEY: Well, I have my personal issues. When I look at the report cards, I really read the teacher comments because I want to know, are they actually paying attention in class? My quietest child was the one who had the most difficulty last year sitting in a seat and doing his work, which kind of was strange to me, and I wouldn't have known that if it hadn't been for the teacher comments. And that one did actually make me come in to talk to the teacher.
MARTIN: I think we'll check back and see what happens.
Ms. IVEY: Sounds good.
MARTIN: Jolene Ivey, Cheli English-Figaro, and Nakelia Field joined us from our studios in Washington. Moms, thank you so much.
Ms. IVEY: Thanks.
Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Thanks, Michel.
Ms. FIELD: Thank you, Michel.
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