Monday, August 31, 2009

A Cost to the Beneficiary - commentry

It was a strange story. Prosecutors were considering filing negligent homicide charges against a father for an automobile accident his son had had in which two people were killed.

It seems the father had bought his son a new Corvette. The son promptly totaled the car in a one vehicle accident, so the father, having more money than good sense, replaced it with another new Corvette. This time when the son totaled the car, he also killed two people in the accident.

I’m sure we could all tell at least one story of a kid who has been given a significant gift, maybe a car or a bicycle, and trashed it in short order. Why? American Revolutionary patriot Thomas Paine put it this way in The American Crisis: “…that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” The reason for this is simple enough. People who are always given things have no way to judge value because they have not traded any of their own time, talent, or energy to obtain the items.

This brings us to one of the problems with American public schooling: there is no direct cost to the beneficiary or his/her parents and so it is not appreciated and not valued. It is generally known that students in private schools do better academically. When parents put out anywhere from $4,000 to $30,000 a year to educate a child, they make sure the student invests some time, talent, and energy into the process.

All too often, I read about some scheme to pay kids for doing well at school, as if the education itself were not enough. An article in the Jan. 22, 2008, edition of the Atlanta Journal reports that, “Forty students … will be the first to try the ‘Learn and Earn’ program, where students will get paid to attend after-school tutoring programs.” The article goes on to report that these students will be given eight dollars an hour to attend class. The purpose of the program is to see if “paying students to study will improve classroom attendance, grades and test scores.” I will predict the outcome based on an often quoted statement of an economist friend: “You will always get more of what you subsidize.” Very quickly there will be more students in need of tutoring. An Oct. 22, 2007, article in the Sun reports a pay the students program to be tried in twenty-one Arkansas high schools to attract more students to advanced placement classes.

I have even been guilty of proposing such schemes. When Dr. James Best, superintendent at Westside, was expressing concern over the increase in seniors who were dropping out before graduation, I proposed we do a raffle. I suggested we get a good, used Ford Mustang and raffle it off to a member of the senior class. Tickets would be given free to seniors, and the only way to get one would to be enrolled as a senior with no more than 10 absences for the school year. The probability of winning would be much greater than in most raffles as there would only be a hundred or so tickets. As a tribute to his good sense, Best did not buy into the idea, though not long after I proposed it, I read where a Phoenix, Arizona, school was doing a take off on the same idea.

Why should we reward kids for doing something for which they are the sole beneficiary? Do they value the free gift of education so little that we have to add material value to it just to give it away? Yes, there are many who do not value it and the solution is not to add superficial value but rather make it cost the beneficiary something.

Before you start screaming about how this would deny an education to the poor, let me assure you I am not talking about charging tuition to attend public schools. The following quote from Daily Celebration, by William Barclay, states well what I mean: "In getting knowledge, the price of the journey is work. If we are not prepared to work really hard, we only get a smattering of a subject, a superficial knowledge of it, a nodding acquaintance of it …. If we are prepared to pay the fare in the coin of work, we can travel far. No one can learn without paying the fare -- in sheer hard work!"

The price to students should be hard work and if they are not willing to pay the price, they should not be allowed to attend school until they are.

This may seem harsh, but my guess is as parents begin to lose their free custodial care and students begin to lose their primary social venue, they will begin to take school work more seriously. The first year, a school might have to send several away, but once students understand they are going to work or else, the number of students being sent away would dwindle to nearly nothing, and there would be a lot more good work being produced. Students would begin to value their education because it would truly cost them something.

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