Thursday, February 24, 2011

Admiration: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's portion of Freakonomics (2010)

The whole of Freakonomics is very interesting and provocative, but Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's (Jesus Camp) portion about bribing 9th Graders to pass their courses was the most interesting to me, even if it wasn't the most eye-opening.

The way the experiment works is that the University of Chicago picked a public school in a Chicagoan suburb and decided to see the effects of payment for passing grades would have on the entire 9th grade class.  If the students had grades that were 'C' or above, had no more than 1 unexcused absences, and zero all-day suspensions they would get paid $50 for each month that the standards were met.  They also got put into a lottery where the lucky chosen student would receive an additional $500 and a ride home in a Hummer-limo.  The film follows around two separate students.  One of them is almost completely failing, one has a mixed bag of grades.  The former cares nothing about school and his passing, the other just doesn't do his homework despite having obvious intelligence.

The experiment seems as though it would made for insanely successful results.  At the end the experimenters do discover that 45-50 students passed 9th grade because of the experiment than in years past.  Yet the two students that we focus on don't do as well as it would seem.  The student who never did his homework does reach the standards for the last month and ends up finally passing, but the other student's grades actually worsen, and he ends up failing 9th grade entirely.  And the former student's grades never reach anything more than a B-.  So not exactly stellar results.

I was just completely flabbergasted at the level of disinterest these students have in their education and what it means for their futures!  The student who doesn't care anything about his grades wants to join the military, but doesn't understand that not every faction of the military is going to accept him just because he's willing.  The other student seems to have genuine ambition, but it is squandered because he doesn't understand the gravity of attaining a high school diploma.  I don't remember ever speaking with someone who didn't care about getting their high school education and I was there only 5 years ago.

I guess I'm trying to say that this portion of the film scared the shit out of me.  I know that education isn't for everyone and that there are a ridiculous amount of students who are succeeding and who care about their futures, but these two had no idea what the world was like, and they come from low-income single-parent families and should know the travails their mothers go to in order to support them.  If not even the incentive of a possible $550 a month gets them to perform exceptionally, can they perform to that level?

A brief look at the experiment:

Trailer to the full film:

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