Cash-for-good-grades project likely done

June 15, 2009 (CHICAGO) The controversial money for grades initiative started a year ago under much fanfare. But tough economic times may force the new program to be shelved.

While the notion of dollars for grades may be repugnant to some, researchers at Harvard saw it as something surely worth trying and analyzing. So they started the "Paper Project" in Chicago last fall with a similar program underway in Washington, DC, public schools. Washington's project will continue for a second year. Chicago's may not.

Fifty dollars for an A, $35 for a B, %20 for a C. Drive your grades up and it would truly pay. The so-called "Paper Project" was started last fall at 20 Chicago high schools. It was aimed at freshmen, the year that sees a demonstrable jump in drop-out rates.

"I want to save mine so when I get older I don't have to wait on my mom and dad for money to go to college," said Spencer Plaxico, South Shore Leadership Academy.

Anecdotally, at least, there was some evidence the program was helping, with improved grades among some of the 4,200 students who were ultimately part of the Paper Project.

The money for the program all came from private donors who have been hurt by the economy, which means Year Two of the Paper Project is in doubt.

"It's under review, so there's a good chance that it'll be temporarily on hold until we can review all the finances for the Paper Project," said Ron Huberman, Chicago Schools CEO.

Huberman says it's simply too soon to say whether the program is successful. Putting it on hold, or outright ending it, may disappoint students and others who saw promise in green for grades, but critics have been skeptical from the get-go, calling it bribery and a distracting gimmick.

"It's sending a message to students who were not in the program that maybe they don't need to be motivated, because they're not getting paid for their grades," said Julie Woestehoff, Parents United for Responsible Education. "Now the concern for me is what message do students get who were in the program? Will they be working as hard next year when they're not getting paid?"

For now, the future of cash for grades will turn on economics -- "What's the return on investment?"

"It's not just a discussion of does The Paper Project get funded?" said Huberman. "It's a bigger discussion of -- in these difficult times, with funding being cut everywhere -- where should we be using those dollars most effectively to have the best outcomes for our kids?"

Roughly on the order of 1.7 million was paid to Chicago Public Schools freshmen for their grades during the course of this year. Again, that's all money from private givers at a time when the philanthropic well isn't as full. But could cash for grades work in a big city school district?

A sister program in New York has ended after two years. Washington's program continues for a second year, and whether Chicago's does or does not, researchers at Harvard's education labs will have a lot of data to measure in detail.

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