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A Tough Job, But There's No Money In It

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Even before I have the chance to stow my purse and kick off my sandals, my son pops into the room to ask, "What are the new rules?"


"Yeah," he says. "I figured since the parent meeting at school was mandatory, they must be telling you about all sorts new rules."

"Nope," I reassure him. "Same rules as before."

He can't imagine what administrators and parents would need to discuss if not some sort of complex rubric to define the various rings of hell one might be required to visit in the event of a behavioral lapse.

I explain that the meeting wasn't about school policy, but rather about the school's mission. "You might say it was a mission effectiveness seminar for parents," I say.

He glazes over and then says, "Huh. Well, good night."

My son doesn't get it, but that's OK. As a high school junior, he can't appreciate that his education is, for his teachers and me, a mission — something we deliberately set out to do, with goals and strategies to help him succeed.

On the other hand, we parents are supposed to understand the connection between our children's intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth and the opportunities they will have in life for happiness, fulfillment and success.

Taking the long view is precisely our job. It's why we get paid the big money.

Oh wait. There's no money in it. Just the intrinsic rewards that come from knowing you've fulfilled your obligation to be the best parent you can to the children God has put in your care.

Unless…you recently enrolled your son or daughter for the first time at the troubled Jefferson Elementary School in St. Louis. In that case, you will get paid — $300 per student, to be exact — simply to assure that your child has near perfect attendance and that you participate in a minimum of three parent/teacher meetings in the first semester.

A nonprofit called Urban Strategies offers the program. Working in partnership with a private developer of affordable housing, Urban Strategies has since 1978 sought to rebuild faltering neighborhoods by introducing creative solutions that empower community residents. The enrollment incentive program is meant to attract nearby families to their neighborhood school, rather than choose charter or magnet schools in other parts of the city.

On the one hand, it's laudable to want to rescue a neighborhood school. But less than 15 percent of Jefferson's students passed last year's Missouri Assessment Test. You have to wonder if the benefit of a cash payment at the end of the semester is worth the risk that your child will be among the 85 percent of students who are not being well educated.

The Urban Strategies program is but one of countless incentive plans aimed at improving student behavior and parent participation through cash rewards. Based on an extensive study of such programs for students in four major U.S. cities, researchers at Harvard University found that while some may improve classroom behavior, most don't make a difference on standardized test results. The effectiveness of programs for parents is less clear.

I confess these educational incentive programs chafe me. Education is a privilege to be protected. Parents who won't take responsibility for their children's schooling ought to be held accountable for the negligence they exhibit not bribed to get in the game.

The American public education system used to be one of the best in the world. For all of my adult life, it seems as a society we've been chasing our tails trying to figure out why it doesn't work the way it used to, or the way it should.

I'm not sure we need more reams of research to accept that we've created a monster of mediocrity.

When you can't fire bad teachers because of tenure and union protections, and you don’t require parents to participate even nominally in the education of their own children, it doesn't matter how many billions of dollars you spend to solve the problem.

Children will be inadequately educated and the country will pay the price.

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