Why you should care

Because the likelihood of this going on your permanent record is very high.

Nothing reveals as much about a society, and its future, as its high schools. Yet amid accelerating change — widening inequality, unprecedented globalization and technological advances — they’ve lagged woefully behind. There are, of course, exceptions. Follow OZY’s special series High School, Disrupted to find out about the global leaders, cutting-edge trends and big ideas reimagining secondary education — for the better.

“That fella’s got a lot of work in him.” The speaker was Dean Baker, head of an eastern Nevada ranching concern, and he was talking about one of his teenage seasonal workers. “Now, if we could only figure out how to get it out of him.” While it seems like the perennial complaint that “kids these days” are somehow less motivated than previous generations who had to walk through snow to school while eating rocks for breakfast, it could be that present-day teens are just wised up.

After all, how many of you adults would show up to work without getting paid to show up to work? By my count, the category consists of a mere three types: saints, CEOs and billionaires turned public servants. You won’t find many of those in high school. Which is to say, maybe it’s time to get serious about the future — not just by educating our labor force but by paying them for the privilege of it, with bonuses for good grades.

More than half a million American students dropped out of high school between October 2014 and October 2105, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The jobless rate for recent high school dropouts was 19.8 percent. Note: The unemployment rate in Germany during the Great Depression was 30 percent — upsetting enough that Hitler seemed like a sensible subsequent choice for Germans trying to vote their way out of misery. If there were an immediate incentive for attending school, attendance — plus, I bet, graduation rates — would go up. More important, it would build a valuable kind of muscle memory necessary to being a productive member of society. I mean, if we’re going to take school seriously as a conduit to adult living and civic engagement, why not start here?

Plenty of people told me why not. “The value system here is all wrong,” argues New York guidance counselor Irma Norman. “The incentive should be, if you go to school, we will help you with a college scholarship so that you can really become a part of this society and not remain marginalized.” To me, this sounds like a chicken-and-egg question. And yet, there are questions about whether or not financial incentives can improve performance. Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer, for one, found they did not.

High school senior Kira Hebbel says the scheme wouldn’t teach motivation and resilience, but concedes that “it might be a boost [for students] to better themselves in the academic world. For me personally, though? It’d have to be, like, $5 a class.”

Well-reasoned and just what might be expected from kids who were already high-achieving. But what about kids whose very allowance might be threatened if they answered, you know, the wrong way? Like high school students and sisters Lola and Ruby Robinson (full disclosure: They are my children). “I like that it makes it clear that education is valued,” says Ruby. “And extra money is nice, but it’s not necessary.”

“I think it would just raise stress, because it would be even more pressure,” says a nervous-looking Lola.

I remain undaunted. Paying students, paying teachers more, and investing actual cash resources into the educating of all of young America — even symbolically — sends a crucial signal. To paraphrase Jay Z, you can’t fail. Even if everyone doesn’t succeed, the power of cash and the value it signifies will make getting smart as singularly important as it seems to be for the survival of the species.

OZYImmodest proposal

Propositions that fall on the continuum between controversial and utterly insane. Sometimes we're tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes, dead serious.