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Paul Ben-Itzak
Special Focus
Les Eyzies, OT (France)

Don't play hooky and hit the jackpot - France tests a new way to get students to class: Money

by Paul Ben-Itzak
October 29, 2009
Les Eyzies, OT (France)
LES EYZIES (Dordogne), France — All of us would like to have a reason to look forward to showing up at work each day besides the necessity to make money and survive. But when we're adults, even if the only motivation for taking a given job is earning a living, we sometimes don't have any choice. For our children, even if teaching them the three R's is a necessity linked to their eventual survival, we have the luxury of being able to provide them other attractions to enrich that school experience and provide a multiplicity of motivators for those kids for whom learning reading, writing, and 'rithmetic may not enough to get them into class every day. For me, in high school it was knowing that I'd spend each afternoon immersed in theater, and working on the school newspaper. For others it was sports or music.

In the Paris suburbs, authorities at the Academy of Creteil, with three "professional" (in the States they'd be called pre-professional) high schools in three counties, Seine-Saint-Denis (where youths rioted in 2005, and where the unemployment rate among young people is more than 25 percent), Val-de-Marne and Seine-et-Marne, desperate for a means to combat high absenteeism — in France, 130,000 students drop out each year, reports the Paris daily Liberation — have proposed a new way to get kids into class: financial reward. And the State has given its accord and provided the cash, at least for an experimental stage involving 150 students in six classes.

"It was an experimental program proposed by the teachers of Bobigny (in Seine-Saint-Denis), Creteil, and elsewhere, among 1,500 projects proposed to us this year" by schools around the country, said Martin Hirsch, high commissar for youth for the State, which is financing the experiment, speaking on France Culture radio.

The idea is simple: Each class starts out with a cache of 2,000 Euros. The students make a contract including goals of attendance, assiduousness, and comportment. During each of four subsequent periods over the course of the school year the class has the chance to win 2,000 more Euros, for a total prize of 10,000 Euros. While there's been much outcry about the idea of paying students to go to class, defenders of the experiment point out that the money does not go directly to the students nor their teachers, but to a project they've agreed upon: buying computer equipment or going on a voyage, for instance. (Another option, learning to drive, was excised.)

'The idea is to fight school the drop-out rate," Emmanuelle Wargon, Hirsch's cabinet director, explained to Liberation, "which does not arrive out of nowhere but after a pattern of repeated absenteeism. We also want to improve assiduousness in schools at risk, like the professional high schools." Wargon defends using money to do so by insisting, "The money is just a tool; it allows the class to dream a little, to realize its project. But to be clear: no individual touches the money, neither students nor teachers; it's the school that receives it at the end of the year to finance the project," which, thus, relies on "the solidarity of the students. It's a collective fight against absenteeism."

In this respect, she points out, it's different than an experiment being tried out in England, where money is given directly to the students' families to encourage them to stay in school beyond the age where they're required to do so. "It's working, because the rate of drop-outs has gone down," she says, "but in our experiment, we're not giving out an amount of money, and it's not the family or individual, but the group which benefits."

Acknowledging that the idea is controversial, Wargon points out that it is just an experiment, but as it's one that will be tested much more broadly next year — extended from six to 70 classes — it's worth asking if the idea of, essentially, rewarding students (even if collectively) financially essentially for just showing up sets a bad precedent, albeit that theoretically they'll also be judged on comportment and application. "From the moment one cites strongly absenteeism, it's perceived as, you're going to pay the students for going to class," Olivier Duhamel, a commentator on France Culture radio, pointed out recently.

And the students aren't necessarily down with the idea either. "It's barbarous," said a high school student from one of the schools, interviewed on France Inter radio.

My own opinion is it's not the best way to prepare students for the real world, for two primary reasons: It risks replacing the acquisition of knowledge with the acquisition of money as the prime motivator for going to school, and it risks bringing up bad workers, who expect to be rewarded and remunerated just for showing up.
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