Does Paying Kids for Test Scores “Smack” of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment?

June 10, 2007

I haven’t been blogging lately because I’m working on a book; unlike some of my more productive friends, it is hard for me to do 2 things at once.

But I was roused from my blog-slumber by this extraordinary recent post from Ed in the Apple. It appears that the NY City schools is expanding its experiment of paying children for taking tests, and paying them more for doing well. This idea is in part the brainchild of Roland Fryer, a creative, full-of-new-ideas-and-willing-to-test-them-all young black economist at Harvard, whose work on “acting white” I’ve discussed before.

I’m not sure exactly what I think of this idea. On the one hand, the notion that kids would love learning for the sake of learning appeals to us all. And surely, the age of the kid might make a difference–perhaps this makes more sense for teens than for 1st graders. At the same time, I’m for trying just about anything to see if it works. More than that, I’ve always been struck by how many adults don’t want to pay kids for things that adults are happy to receive money for–indeed, that adults will only do if they are paid.

One example of this is youth advocacy. At Maya Angelou, we’ve always supported creative ways of getting young people involved in advocating for themselves, on the theory that this is how lasting change gets made and sustained. One way to do this is to have teens go to city council hearings and other public events, lobby elected officials, etc. I have always thought that kids should be paid for this work. At a typical event that impacts teenagers, there will be adults from many constituencies. Almost all of them are getting paid to be there–it is there job to lobby, that is what advocates do. But many people think that kids should be there for free.

But however you come down on paying kids for test results–and I get that paying kids to lobby may not be the same as paying them to take tests–what struck me about this post was the end, where the blogger actually argues (and I’m not making this up) that though “Roland Freyer may be a renown Afro-American social scientist – his casual attitude, ignoring parents, teachers and the impact on students, unfortunately, smacks of the Tuskeegee experiments.”

Whatever one thinks of the merits of the proposal, comparing paying kids for test scores to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment (where blacks were intentionally given syphilis and not treated to see what would happen) is completely over the top. This is an example of the extraodinarily unproductive rhetoric-in-place-of-argument that seems to surround so many debates in education. So please, stop it!

Correction (June 25): My friend Jennifer Richeson points out an error in my description of the Tuskegee study. As she writes, “although the male participants of the study were certainly not treated, blocked from obtaining effective treatment when it became available (penicillin), and not told that they had syphilis if they did not know, which led to many wives, girlfriends etc, also getting the illness, they were not intentionally infected with it.”


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