Children As Guinea Pigs

Washington, D.C., bribes its students to perform

By Deborah Menkart

School officials in Washington, D.C., have begun an experiment on low-income children, most of whom are African American and Latino. The D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michele A. Rhee, championed by both candidates during the presidential debates, has invited Harvard University economist Roland Fryer — described in the Washington Post as “a 30-year-old wunderkind” — to conduct an experiment on the impact of providing students a financial incentive to attend school. Originally called School Is Money, this initiative pays students in 14 D.C. middle schools (about 3,000 students) $100 every two weeks for good attendance and behavior. The program, now called Capital Gains, deposits money into a bank account in the student’s name. The city projects spending $2.7 million on the program the first year.

This experiment is one of a few similar initiatives being tried in urban school systems, including New York, Baltimore, and Chicago. It came to D.C. with the sole approval of the chancellor who reports only to the mayor. There were no public hearings.

If the public had been allowed to weigh in before the Capital Gains program was launched in October of 2008, here are some of the serious concerns that might have been raised:

  • How are parents supposed to have authority over their middle school aged children’s purchases when the bank accounts are in the children’s name?

Or is the assumption that the role of low-income parents is irrelevant? Chancellor and Mayor might respond that parents at the 14 middle schools were told that they could sign a form to opt out. But imagine being the one parent telling your child she or he can’t get the cash that their peers receive each week.

  • The Capital Gains program asks for students’ Social Security numbers to set up the bank accounts. What about the considerable number of children from families who are undocumented?
  • What if others pressure students to turn over the money — who is going to protect them?
  • What will happen to children’s intrinsic motivation to learn? If intrinsic motivation has been replaced with extrinsic rewards, what will happen when the money runs out?
  • How will students feel when they go on to high school and there is no monetary compensation? While the initiative might get students to attend middle school as a short-term gain, it could easily fuel longer term disappointment and cynicism.

At a presentation by Chancellor Rhee and Dr. Fryer, according to attendees, middle school parents were told: “We are starting at ground zero, so the worst that can happen if the experiment does not work is that we will end up back where we started, at ground zero.” Putting aside the deficit perspective this implies of D.C. students, this statement ignores the detrimental effects that a system of rewards can have on intrinsic motivation. University of Rochester psychologist Edward L. Deci and three colleagues did a thorough review of all major studies on tangible rewards and concluded that they “do significantly and substantially undermine intrinsic motivation,” especially with young children.

A statement by Fryer indicates a willingness to treat children as guinea pigs, “I crave for scientific evidence that things are working,” Fryer said, adding that while he believed that incentive programs held promise, “the jury is still out. I actually don’t care if incentives are the answer; I just care about getting an answer. If incentives aren’t the answer, I guarantee you I will drop them like a bad habit.” Sadly, as a result of his experiment, children might lose their good habits.

Imagine if the millions of dollars invested in this experiment were instead provided to support the kind of education that research has proven to engage middle school students: hands-on learning, field trips, smaller class sizes, relevant curriculum, and a nurturing environment. Or the funds could be invested in the badly needed professional development for teachers.

Children in our nation’s capital deserve to be treated as young scholars, not as guinea pigs that need to be bribed to learn. As the editorial in The D.C. Examiner on Sept. 19, 2008, stated: “If bribing students is the answer, the adults in the education establishment are asking the wrong questions.”

It is hard to find even one good reason to conduct an experiment on students who have already been underserved, especially while there are ample approaches available that have been proven over time to make a difference. Let’s hope people start asking the right questions so that this experimentation is exposed and curtailed before more damage is done.

Deborah Menkart is the executive director of Teaching for Change (, a non-profit social justice education organization based in Washington, D.C., that provides support for parents and teachers.