We can resign ourselves to such depressing realities or we can search for creative, even radical, solutions. Mayor Bloomberg is taking the latter course, with a plan to pay selected low-income families - adults and children - to do the right thing. If they get a preventive checkup, keep a job, show up at school, pass a Regents exam or take other beneficial actions, a private fund, seeded in part with some of Bloomberg's own billions, will forward them cash.
The most controversial piece of the plan gives money to kids. Nine thousand fourth- and seventh-grade students in 40 public schools will get chunks of change when they do well on each of 10 math and reading tests. Fourth-graders will earn up to $25 per perfect score. Seventh-graders, twice that. High school kids will get $600 for each Regents exam they pass - and they and their parents will split $600 for accumulating 11 high school credits per year.
Using money to encourage students to achieve runs counter to cherished beliefs about the value of schooling, including the not unimportant notion that maybe, just maybe, kids should appreciate learning for its own sake. But what if the plan works? What if it starts to break through the perverse culture that mocks kids who love to learn? What if young people score real, sustained gains?
Those participating in the program will be measured against a control group of low-income kids and families who don't get any monetary rewards. Two years from now, researchers hope to be able to divine whether the incentives encourage poor people to change entrenched behavior the way, say, executives alter the way they do business to get tax breaks.
The best case was made by Theodore Roosevelt more than 100 years ago: "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." And then: try, try again.