It drives me crazy that so much of our efforts to reform education don't do anything to make schools better. Worse still, so many of them don't even try to make schools better. Rather we talk about things like adding choice, competition, accountability, and incentives. I'm not automatically opposed to any of these things necessarily. I do think, however, that they need to be part of a plan to improve schools that need to be improved. They can't be part of some scheme to help some kids and leave the rest to fend for themselves.
One scheme that always struck me as dangerously close to that line of help a few and abandon the rest was the New York City Department of Education's plan to offer cash incentives to students who scored well on tests.
The plan has a certain surface appeal. I mean, for a few hundred bucks, wouldn't kids work a little bit harder to succeed. And if they started working harder for the extra money and started to get proficient, maybe that would give them a boost of confidence and skill so that they wouldn't need the cash incentive. And then the achievement gap would be closed and everyone could live happily ever after.
The flip side of the argument is that it turns educational achievement into a commodity that isn't valued unless it's paid for. It cheapens the thrill of learning for the sake of learning.
I could go around and around with these arguments, but all the philosophy is ultimately cut short by one simple fact: the program didn't work. That's a pretty tough argument to get around.
According to the New York Times story yesterday, AP test scores actually declined on the whole among the students who were part of the program during the last school year. Fewer kids passed the test when they were getting paid. So much for that program.
One interesting anomaly in the data is that the number of students scoring a 5 (the best score) increased last year, even as the numbers of 3's and 4's declined. What that tells me (and I'm saying this without even glancing at the raw data) is that the program was successful among students who were already motivated and on the track toward success. Those students were able to take it one notch higher with the extra incentive. For kids far below the standards, it didn't make a difference.
So where does that leave us? Pretty much back where we started. If we want our kids to learn, we need to provide good schools. Offering up extra "motivation" for the students doesn't make a difference if the schools can't take advantage of it. We can't count on an individualized, each-student-pulls-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps approach to reforming a dysfunctioning system.