Jackie Gingrich Cushman
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In addition, students are dropping out of school at alarming rates.  "Cities in Crisis: A Special Analytical Report on High School Graduation," by Christopher B. Swanson, Ph.D,     in 2008 reports nationwide high school graduation rates at only 69.9 percent.  Georgia lags even that, with a graduation rate of 56 percent.  The Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) states, “Each year over 59,300 students in Georgia do not graduate.”  The cost to Georgia?  More than $15.4 billion in lost wages, taxes, and productivity over the lifetimes of the 2007 dropouts alone.

This affects the student even more than it affects society.  In his piece, “Learning and Earning,” Christopher Swanson, (Education Week, June 12, 2007) reported that, on average, students who graduate from high school with no further education earn 42 percent more than those who do not graduate.  Clearly, it is in the students’ best interest to graduate from high school, even if they go no further.

The Learn and Earn, program is funded by Aaron Rents founder and CEO Charlie Loudermilk, through the LMD Foundation, and championed by Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts. It replicates what many parents do by providing incentives for academic performance.

Learn and Earn’s key components include:

·        Focusing on students who were underperforming in math and science
·        Providing incentives for students to earn up to $8 per hour for participating in after-school sessions two hours, twice per week
·        Tying incentive pay to student performance
·        Providing master instructors as tutors
·        Keeping the instructor:student ratios near 1 to 10
·        Using independent third parties to evaluate results 

As one of the instructors noted, the cash was the incentive that “hooked” the students into participating, but it was the student/ teacher interaction that motivated them to stay and learn.

 The Learning Makes a Difference Foundation, which focuses on innovative learning programs, tries ideas that others won’t. It acts as an incubator of ideas, creating, implementing, and testing new initiatives and partnering with existing non-profits to implement proven ideas.  With large foundations focusing on proven programs, the LMD Foundation functions as a venture non-profit, funding pilot programs that include results tracking.  The LMD Foundation is funded by corporations, individuals and foundations.  The statistical report by EmStar Research regarding the Learn and Earn pilot will be completed this summer and available on www.lmdfoundation.org

I have a few takeaways from this pilot program:

1)                 While public schools often get bad press, there are numerous teachers and administrators who are dedicated and impassioned to help students learn.  It was a pleasure to work with people who are enthusiastic about education.

2)                 With incentives, support and encouragement, students who were underperforming can become engaged, impassioned and excited about learning and improving their academic scores.

3)                 Having a group structure helps.  The students bonded and encouraged each other, and as a teacher related, often learned from one another.

The experiment generated enormous interest and some disagreement over how best to motivate students to learn. This is a needed discussion. 

We often look for system-wide answers to the education problem, and forget that students learn from teachers, not systems. Since every student is different, it is unlikely that any one program will meet all students’ needs.  The final report on Learn and Earn is not yet written, and we don’t expect it to be “the” answer, but it is a building block towards answering the question: how do we create desire, motivation and engagement among students so they are eager to learn?

That is a question worth asking, and trying to answer.

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Jackie Gingrich Cushman

Jackie Gingrich Cushman is a speaker, syndicated columnist, socialpreneur, and author of "The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches Every American Should Own," and co-author of “The 5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours”.