Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Department of Education has just approved a plan to pay poor kids to get higher test scores. The city will pay kids if they take tests, pay them if they pass tests and pay them if they get high scores. It will pay them to pass high school graduation exams. It will pay their parents to get library cards and to meet with the children's teachers. It will pay them if their children have a good attendance record.
This plan is insulting to poor kids and poor families. It assumes that they won't do the right thing for themselves unless the government pays them to do it. It demeans the poor parents who do meet their children's teachers; who do have library cards; who do care desperately about their children's schooling. And it insults the kids who are trying their best but having trouble because New York City has the most overcrowded classrooms in the state of New York.
This plan, moreover, is unethical and immoral. It makes the basest possible assumptions about human behavior and acts on the behaviorist view that people are motivated only by hard cash.
If parents want to give their kids money to get an "A" or to pass a course, that's their private affair, but for the government to pay people to take personal responsibility for themselves is repulsive.
From the point of view of schooling, this plan is wrong because it tells kids that they should study only if they get extrinsic rewards. Yet what educators are supposed to do is teach kids to have a love of learning, to encourage them to improve their lives by enlarging their knowledge of the world. If they are going to study only if someone pays them, what happens when the payment ends? What will motivate the kids who are not getting cash payments when their classmates are being paid off for higher scores? The plan destroys any hope of teaching the value of intrinsic motivation, or the rewards of deferred gratification, or the importance of self-discipline for a distant but valued goal.
From the point of view of society, the plan is wrong because it tears at the social fabric of reciprocity and civic responsibility that makes a democratic society function. Should we pay people to drive safely? Should we pay them to stop at red lights? Should we pay citizens for doing the things that good citizens do on their own?
The pay-for-behavior plan is anti-democratic, anti-civic, anti-intellectual, and anti-social. It is the essence of the nanny-state run amok.