Pay for grades — does it work?

Nearly $1 million in private funds was paid out to 1,161 New York City students yesterday for scoring well on Advanced Placement exams. Still, the number who passed declined slightly:

Students involved in the program, financed with $2 million in private donations and aimed at closing a racial gap in Advanced Placement results, posted more 5’s, the highest possible score. That rise, however, was overshadowed by a decline in the number of 4’s and 3’s. Three is the minimum passing score. [...]

The organizers and underwriters of the program said they were encouraged by the increase in test-takers and student survey results. They said they never expected to see significant change in the first year, noting that the program was announced after the school year was under way and students had signed up for Advanced Placement classes.

Roland G. Fryer, the city’s chief equality officer, runs the program. It also pays students prizes of up to $50 per test for taking and passing other standardized tests. In another, middle school students are rewarded with cellphone minutes for good behavior, attendance and homework along with test scores.

Programs like Fryer’s are being tried across the country. The big question is do they work? There have been only a few studies. Results have been mixed. A new study that’s being watched closely examines the 12-year-old program in Texas. It finds that rewarding students for doing well on tough tests can work:

The research, by C. Kirabo Jackson, an economics professor at Cornell University, found that over time, more students took Advanced Placement courses and tests, and that more graduating seniors attended college. Most of the gains came from minority students in the 40 high schools studied, accounting for about 70,000 students in all. [...]

But exactly how much the cash incentives contributed to the improvements remains unclear. Teachers in these districts received additional training and bonuses of up to $10,000 when their students scored well. So it’s inconclusive whether paying the students, rewarding the teachers or a combination of these led to the improved test scores.

A critic notes:

“If we are going to invest, why don’t we invest in something that we know does work, like reducing class size or extended learning time?” asks Pedro Noguera, a New York University sociology professor, who is critical of cash-incentive programs. Many students have trouble learning because they “are just not going to good schools, and no incentive is going to fix that,” he says.

Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, initially expressed cautious support for the NYC program. He’s not happy with the results:

“I’m just dumbfounded that they can regard this as an achievement or as a great improvement or as something worth spending the money on… I’m surprised that that kind of money, that kind of incentives, doesn’t produce better results. It sort of undercuts the argument that the problem is the question of motivation.”

Stern has a very interesting piece right now in City Journal calling for a Marshall Plan for Reading in New York City schools. In it he calls Fryer’s efforts “quixotic” and says:

Reading problems…are at the core of the black-white achievement gap. Reading is the motor of all education—the basic skill that leads to all other academic skills. Disadvantaged kids who can’t read adequately by fourth grade aren’t as likely to understand math problems, science and social studies texts, computer manuals, or much else. They’re almost doomed to falling further and further behind in their later school years. At that point, remediation is probably too late. The only way for them to avoid the fate described in Fryer’s research, in my view, is for the city to undertake a massive reading intervention, targeting very young inner-city black children.

He goes on to critique of NYC schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s emphasis on market-style accountability reforms — “one can easily imagine a scenario in which the market incentives raise average test scores for the system’s 1,400 schools while the black-white test-score gap in the early grades grows even wider” — and calls for an emphasis on phonics-based reading programs with strong track records.

I am persuaded by Stern’s arguments, while also believing that it’s worth continuing to explore “pay for grades” incentive programs.