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Faith Lens

June 10-17, 2009 – ‘Earn and learn’ programs work for New York City students

Contributed by Jennifer Krausz
Bethlehem, PA

Warm-up Question: What do you think would motivate you to improve your grades or test scores at school?

Low income New York City fourth and seventh graders that were paid for higher scores on several standardized tests showed much greater improvements than students not paid, a Post analysis showed. Fourth graders were paid up to $25 per test for 10 separate assessments for improvement, and seventh graders were paid up to $50 per test for the 10 tests. The higher students score, the more they are paid, up to a total of $250 for fourth graders and $500 for seventh graders.

Of the 59 schools in the program, about two-thirds improved their reading and math test scores by margins above city-wide averages. In some schools, students scored close to 40 percentage points higher on the tests than they had the year before. For example, at PS 188 on the Lower East Side, 76 percent of fourth graders met or surpassed the state benchmarks for English, which was 39.6 points higher than when they were in the third grade.

Principals have stated that the payment program, called “Sparks,” is only one of several factors contributing to the higher test scores. They do acknowledge that the payments have motivated students to improve, even to compete with each other over who can earn the most money each year. “It’s an ego booster in terms of self-worth,” said Rose Marie Mills, principal at MS 343 in Mott Haven, where nearly 90 percent of students qualify for federal poverty aid. “When they get the checks, there’s that competitiveness — ‘Oh, I’m going to get more money than you next time’ — so it’s something that excites them.”

In total, about 8,000 students earned $1.25 million as part of the privately funded program to encourage higher student test scores at schools where most families have incomes below the poverty level.

Discussion Questions  

  • What is your general attitude toward school? (It’s a job, an obligation, a burden, a good place to learn, love it, or some other attitude.)
  • What are the pros and cons of paying students to perform better in school?
  • Have you ever been paid or offered payment for good grades or test scores? If so, did it work?
  • What or who are the most powerful motivators for you to learn and mature in life? What or who encourages your continuing growth a young person?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, June 14, 2009.
(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

Parables can be confusing. How does talking about plants and how they grow have anything to do with the kingdom of God? And what is the kingdom of God anyway?

According to Jesus’ words in the Bible, the kingdom of God is something we enter through faith in Jesus. It’s the spiritual kingdom over which God reigns. Through faith, we begin to see the world through God’s eyes, and work for the compassion, justice, love, healing, and forgiveness God desires for humankind and creation. The kingdom of God is present right here and right now, and will be fully realized at sometime in the future.

When we are “young” in our faith, we just have a glimpse of the kingdom of God. We don’t have a deep understanding of God’s ways and word. In many ways, we are spiritual babies. But God plants the seed of faith in our hearts. The Spirit cultivates our faith through prayer, hearing and studying God’s word, worshipping God, and the care and encouragement we receive from being part of a community of faith. Our seed of faith grows with lots of care and tending. Our faith and our understanding of God’s ways grow and increase, too. We live in and grow into the kingdom of God, all at the same time.

These parables were meant to show that each of us, together with God working through each other and the Spirit, can have the tiniest seed of faith and it will grow to be a large, healthy, and full of life… like the tiny mustard seed that grows into the “largest of all garden plants” (v. 32). Much growth is possible during our lives on earth, and it will it will continue long after that.

Discussion Questions

  • How has your faith grown since you first started to believe in Jesus? What are your first memories or images of faith, God, and the church?
  • What things have been challenging and difficult in your faith? What or who has helped you grow and mature in faith (especially right now)?
  • Why do you think Jesus explained his parables to his closest disciples but not to the crowds? Why is a parable sometimes more powerful a a teaching tool?
  • When you think of heaven, what do you see? What do you wonder?

Activity Suggestion

God plants the seed of faith in our hearts, but it takes many people help to water, feed, and protect it during the course of our lives. Parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, godparents, and even strangers often help our faith to grow, and they may not even know the impact they have had.

Encourage each person to identify someone who has helped their faith to grow. If your budget allows, provide stationery and stamps so students can write a brief thank you note to the person they feel has most helped them in their faith. Mail the letters yourself if possible so they are sure to be received.

Closing Prayer

God, we thank you for planting the seed of faith in our hearts and for all you do to help our faith grow. Thank you that we can freely pray to you, for your word in the Bible, and for the people in our lives who have shown us more of what the kingdom of God is like. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.