This is part of the America's Future series airing on FOX News Channel, looking at the challenges facing the country in the 21st century.
WASHINGTON — After decades of plummeting student performance, school leaders in Washington have decided to pay middle schoolers to show up, behave and get good grades.
In the 15 months since she took the helm of Washington, D.C.'s, lackluster public school system, Chancellor Michelle Rhee has earned a reputation as a risk-taker. Rhee says she's more than willing to try unconventional educational approaches in order to boost sagging student performance.
"We know that for the last couple of decades the kind of things that we have been doing as a school district have not worked, so I think it's actually quite irresponsible of us not to engage in some innovative programs and try to think outside the box about what we can do to break this cycle," Rhee said.
This school year, that includes paying kids in cold, hard cash.
The new Capital Gains program gives students the chance to earn points based on criteria like showing up on time, turning in their homework, using good manners and earning top grades.
The points translate into dollars, allowing students to earn up to $100 a month. The cash goes into a bank account in the student's name, and he or she must withdraw the funds in person.
For now, it's only a pilot program that doesn't involve all of the District's middle schoolers. Harvard researchers will measure the pay-for-performance group against the students who are not part of the program.
The $2.7 million price tag for the program is being funded by the D.C. Public School system and Harvard's American Inequity Lab, but not everyone thinks it's the best use of money in a district that spends 1.5 times the national average per student and doesn't have much to show for it.
Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union says D.C. schools are over-funded and under-performing. "D.C. public schools already spend 13,000 dollars per pupil," he said. "Where is that money going? We should be asking that question before piling on more."
Charlene Rucker, who has a grandchild in the D.C. public school system, has doubts as well. "Take that money and invest that money in equipment, invest that money in materials, in books. Invest that money in the schools," she said. "I think [this is] a lousy idea."
Rhee says she'll take a look at the research at the end of the school year and will abandon any expansion of Capital Gains if it isn't working. She says middle school is make-or-break time for most students, and in the District they aren't faring well: Just 33 percent are proficient in math and 36 percent in reading.
"For a lot of our kids in middle school there are incentives out on the street to do all of the wrong things," she said. "What we want to do is provide some positive incentives."