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The pandemic’s impact continues to upend life in education, and we have yet to reckon with its extent on health and the economy. That’s why we should give serious consideration to paying students 16 and older to attend after-school enrichment programs, extended summer learning and work-study programs.

Recent NAEP scores showed startling declines that could amount to as many as 22 weeks of learning loss, according to Thomas Kane, faculty director of Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research. Researchers and education leaders alike recognize that we cannot continue with business as usual if we hope to accelerate the improvement of outcomes and exceed pre-pandemic level achievement.

Righting the ship and preventing more harm will require bold thinking and creative use of resources. It should be possible with the help of over $190 billion in education stimulus via the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds.

The idea of paying kids to go to school to improve education outcomes is not a new concept. Mexico briefly operated a successful program of this nature, albeit focused on a younger population, back in 1997. But the availability of ESSER funds means that now is the perfect time for such a program and for the Department of Education to allow school districts to provide direct monetary rewards to students and their families. 

Unfortunately, the ESSER language bans such an approach; the Department of Education should change that language to allow school districts to  provide direct monetary rewards to students and their families.*

We must recognize that we are not approaching a crisis, we are already in one. In addition to the so-called learning loss, chronic absenteeism is on the rise across the country. Innovative ways to bring students back into classrooms before they drop out entirely are needed.

Many young people added responsibility and independence during the pandemic. Some lost family members and had to take on new complex roles in their homes. Many older students were supporting younger siblings, helping manage household affairs and/or taking on jobs to help their families.

Paying kids to go to school to improve education outcomes is not a new concept.

While the painful choice between prioritizing family or school is, fortunately, not universal, every student’s development suffered because of Covid’s impact. Our students’ lives are different now, and we need a different approach if we are going to address learning loss and absenteeism head on.

We often talk about simply making up lost learning time, but it’s not that simple. Like lost sleep, lost learning time cannot be reclaimed — but we can chart a new course that will set students up for success.

What if we used ESSER funds to create opportunities that allow for more focused and intentional learning time, aimed at addressing gaps exasperated during the pandemic?  What if we created an entirely new way of connecting with students who are facing competing priorities? I would argue that doing so would be a better use of ESSER funds, with potential for a much greater return on investment.

In addition, paying students to attend work-study, extended day and/or summer school will help them build meaningful connections, deepen their learning and increase the possibility that they will earn a high school diploma — and thus enable far more opportunities in the future.

Related: OPINION: Inequality is still at the heart of student NAEP score performance

If we want to tackle learning loss and absenteeism with the necessary level of response, we could also use ESSER funds to employ students in age-appropriate job positions at their schools and in their cities. Think lunch prep in a cafeteria or clerical work in an administrative office, for example.

This approach is beneficial across the board. It would help schools and cities address the workforce shortage. Students, meanwhile, would be able to earn supplementary income for themselves and their families while acclimating themselves to the workforce.

Employing students would also deepen their attachment to their communities, reducing disengagement. And it would keep administrators clued into students’ whereabouts, which is often the biggest challenge in addressing absenteeism.

Work-study programs have been a resounding success in colleges across the country. It’s time we introduce them at the high school level.

The availability of ESSER funds presents a unique opportunity that must be seized with the intensity of the moment. With so many concerns around education stemming from classroom and learning disruptions of learning, we should be spending this money to directly reverse those trends.

Yes, paying kids to go to school and/or to work at school is a seismic departure from simply fulfilling the requirement for attendance, but we are lying to ourselves if we believe that the solution is doing exactly what we’ve done to date.

This idea represents an investment in students — our future — and in our economy, both today and tomorrow. We would be foolish not to give it a try.

*Editor’s Note: The original version of this op ed did not note that current ESSER fund rules prohibit their use for direct payments; the author believes that rule should be modified. 

Brandon Cardet-Hernandez is executive director of the Ivy Street School and Skills for Life in Brookline and a member of the Boston School Committee. He is the former senior education advisor to NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio.

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