PICO BLVD — The Pico Youth & Family Center plans to launch a new program next week that takes an unorthodox approach to improving students’ grades — paying them.

The program, fittingly called Cash for Grades, promises 20 students $100 if they finish the year with an A in their math or English classes. A B will get them $50.

To qualify, they’ll need to attend one study session a week with volunteer tutors at PYFC, said Oscar de la Torre, the center’s director and a member of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education.

The goal is to give youth that are struggling academically incentives to show up to the free tutoring resources that are already available to them.

“We have free tutoring, and they obviously have a need, so why are they not accessing the services that are free and that they need?” de la Torre said. “We’re trying to answer that question.”

Cash for Grades is the brainchild of two PYFC volunteers — Jason Eng and Jake Solomon.

In their day jobs, the two conduct research for a local think tank, and they brought those skills to bear when seeking out ways to encourage their tutoring students to get the most out of the extra help.

Eng discovered a paper by Roland G. Fryer, an economist with Harvard University, that studied the impacts on student learning and achievement when he literally paid them to do work.

Fryer’s research took place in 203 schools located in Dallas, New York City and Chicago. In each city, he took a different approach.

In New York, he paid students based on their performance on certain tests. In Chicago, children got money for good classroom grades, and in Dallas they were paid for every book read.

Researchers distributed a total of $9.4 million across the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years to roughly 27,000 students.

The results were decidedly mixed.

According to the paper, students in New York City actually performed worse on tests during the experiment, while students in Chicago performed marginally better and English-speaking students in Dallas also saw test score improvements.

The research was inconclusive, Eng said, but there was a part that jumped out at him.

“There were times when students were very excited about the incentives, but didn’t know how to get there,” he said. “They were excited to get money for doing well, but there wasn’t a structure and they didn’t have a foundation to know how to get good grades.”

That’s what Eng and Solomon hoped to fix by including a mandatory tutoring component in their plan — to get money, kids would also have to show up to tutoring sessions to make sure they were working on the material they would later be tested on.

“It’s my personal belief that everyone can work a little bit harder,” Eng said. “That’s where I stand. If incentivizing an output and requiring an input gets them to sit down more and work better, that’s great.”

Unlike Fryer’s work, Cash for Grades doesn’t have institutional support to put up the money needed to get the program off the ground.

Eng, Solomon and members of the PYFC team raised the money they needed through personal appeals to family and friends.

They’ll be holding an informational session on Monday, April 30, at which point 20 students will be accepted into the program. It’s mostly first-come-first-serve, de la Torre said, but there will be a preference for students enrolled in their school’s free or reduced lunch meal program.

After that, students will have approximately six weeks to raise their grades for a shot at up to $200 a head.

There’s no guarantee that the potentially controversial program will work, but as educators throughout Santa Monica struggle to raise test scores and close the achievement gap that exists between minority students and their white and Asian counterparts, Cash for Grades proponents feel like it’s worth a shot.

“It might not work, it may work,” Eng said. “Something is better than nothing. Let’s try something and let’s do something … let’s see where this goes.”


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