Rewards for good grades get a mixed reception

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 June, 2007, 12:00am

New York

Think about this: if little Johnny can make some money for himself and his family by attending school and achieving good exam results, will he love his textbooks as much as his Xbox? Or will he one day shout 'show me the money' to his teachers, the way Tom Cruise did in the 1996 movie Jerry Maguire?

These are questions New Yorkers want Mayor Mike Bloomberg to consider before he formalises a programme that will pay cash to students for good marks.

The programme, spearheaded by Harvard University economics professor Roland Fryer, recently captured the mayor's heart. 'If we aren't looking at everything, shame on us,' he said.

Under the proposal, students could earn US$5 to US$50 in the city-wide standardised tests. If everything goes well, the scheme could start as soon as the next semester.

Meanwhile, another experiment will see thousands of parents from poor families collect up to US$3,000 for ensuring attend school, get high scores and don't miss dental appointments.

To New Yorkers, Mr Bloomberg's apparent belief that money can buy grades is not a surprise. The mayor's financial news and information company, Bloomberg, is known for offering employees higher salaries and bonuses but demanding long hours in return.

He is like a chief executive rather than a politician when it comes to trying to reform New York's troubled education system.

He started his first term by seizing control of the system from the bureaucratic and unaccountable Board of Education, and recently launched another major restructuring, offering school principals greater authority and introducing a fairer way of allocating funds.

In between, he terminated the system that had allowed students who didn't make progress to be promoted to a higher grade.

Despite strong opposition to his reforms, particularly from the teaching profession, the performance of New York City students in state-wide tests has bolstered the mayor's credibility.

The number of students who met the standards in the state-wide English test this year jumped 2.8 per cent. And in the mathematics test, the weakest link, the improvement was 8.1 per cent over last year, the largest rise since 1999.

But while the mayor may win broad acclaim for education reform, the idea of handing out dollars for higher scores has triggered criticism. 'This is about creating a very obvious incentive,' said Andrew White, director of the Centre for New York City Affairs at New School University. 'The question is, should people be rewarded for doing what they should do?'

Other educators doubt the incentive will have its desired effect. 'It won't work,' said Leonard Golubchick who, until he retired two years ago, had been the principal of a primary school in the city for almost 30 years.

Dr Golubchick said showing students their rank in the class based on their scores might work better. '[We want] kids to do things because it is meaningful for them psychologically, and it creates a sense of power that they have control over what they do.'

Some people worry about negatives. 'It's a crude idea,' said Geoffrey Chang, a middle-school social science teacher. 'It would tell kids the only thing to value is cash, when there are many things that cannot be valued by money.'

For students, a little extra cash doesn't sound that enticing. Nan Tong Lin, an eighth grade student, said he would prefer a trophy to cash, 'because money comes and goes, and you can keep the trophy for a long time'.