By Jennifer Medina
The fourth graders squirmed in their seats, waiting for their prizes. In a few minutes, they would learn how much money they had earned for their scores on recent reading and math exams. Some would receive nearly $50 for acing the standardized tests, a small fortune for many at this school, P.S. 188 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
When the rewards were handed out, Jazmin Roman was eager to celebrate her $39.72. She whispered to her friend Abigail Ortega, “How much did you get?” Abigail mouthed a barely audible answer: $36.87. Edgar Berlanga pumped his fist in the air to celebrate his $34.50.
The children were unaware that their teacher, Ruth Lopez, also stood to gain financially from their achievement. If students show marked improvement on state tests during the school year, each teacher at Public School 188 could receive a bonus of as much as $3,000.
School districts nationwide have seized on the idea that a key to improving schools is to pay for performance, whether through bonuses for teachers and principals, or rewards like cash prizes for students. New York City, with the largest public school system in the country, is in the forefront of this movement, with more than 200 schools experimenting with one incentive or another. In more than a dozen schools, students, teachers and principals are all eligible for extra money, based on students’ performance on standardized tests.
Each of these schools has become a test to measure whether, as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg posits, tangible cash rewards can turn a school around. Can money make academic success cool for students disdainful of achievement? Will teachers pressure one another to do better to get a schoolwide bonus?
So far, the city has handed out more than $500,000 to 5,237 students in 58 schools as rewards for taking several of the 10 standardized tests on the schedule for this school year. The schools, which had to choose to participate in the program, are all over the city.
“I’m not saying I know this is going to fix everything,” said Roland G. Fryer, the Harvard economist who designed the student incentive program, “but I am saying it’s worth trying. What we need to try to do is start that spark.”
Nationally, school districts have experimented with a range of approaches. Some are giving students gift certificates, McDonald’s meals and class pizza parties. Baltimore is planning to pay struggling students who raise their state test scores.
Critics of these efforts say that children should be inspired to learn for knowledge’s sake, not to earn money, and question whether prizes will ultimately lift achievement. Anticipating this kind of argument, New York City was careful to start the student experiment with private donations, not taxpayer money, avoiding some of the controversy that has followed the Baltimore program, which uses public money.
Some principals had no qualms about entering the student reward program. Virginia Connelly, the principal of Junior High School 123, in the Soundview section of the Bronx, has experimented with incentives for years, like rewarding good behavior, attendance and grades with play money that can be spent in the student store.
“We’re in competition with the streets,” Ms. Connelly said. “They can go out there and make $50 illegally any day of the week. We have to do something to compete with that.”
Barbara Slatin, the principal of P.S. 188, on the other hand, said she was initially skeptical about paying students for doing well. Her students, many of whom live in the nearby housing projects along Avenue D, would surely welcome the money, she said, but she worried about sending the wrong message. “I didn’t want to connect the notion of money with academic success,” she said.
But after a sales pitch by Dr. Fryer, Ms. Slatin said she was persuaded to try. “We say we want to do whatever it takes, so if this is it, I am going to get on board,” she said.
In 1996, P.S. 188 was considered to be failing by the State Education Department, but it has improved dramatically over the last decade. In the fall, it received an A on the city’s report card. Still, fewer than 60 percent of the students passed the state math test last year, and fewer than 40 percent did so in reading.
Teachers at the school said that this year, they had noticed a better attitude among the students, which they attributed to the incentive program. One recent day, fourth graders talked eagerly about the computer games they have been playing to get ready for this week’s state math exam. During the school’s recent winter break, dozens of students showed up for extra tutoring to prepare.
“My teacher told me to study more, so I study,” said Jazmin, who had already taken eight standardized exams this school year. “I did multiplication tables. I learned to divide.” When asked why she took so many tests, Jazmin replied earnestly, “To show them we have education and we learn stuff from education and the tests.”
The students spoke excitedly about their plans for the money. Several boys said they were saving for video games. Abigail said she would use it to pay for “a car, a house and college,” apparently unaware that the roughly $100 she’s earned this school year might not stretch that far. Another little girl said she would use the money simply for food. When asked to elaborate, she answered quietly, “Spaghetti.”
Changing the attitudes of seventh graders seems to be more complicated. At J.H.S. 123 in the Bronx, for example, a seventh-grade English class was asked one morning if there were too many standardized tests. Every hand in the room shot up to answer with a defiant yes. But at the same time, the students all agreed that receiving money for doing well on a test was a good idea, saying it made school more exciting, and made doing well more socially acceptable.
“This is the hardest grade to pass,” said Adonis Flores, a 13-year-old who has struggled in his classes at times. “This motivates us better. Everybody wants some money, and nobody wants to get left behind.”
Would it be better to get the money as college scholarships? Shouts of “No way!” echoed through the room. “We might not all go to college,” one student protested.
So is doing well in school cool? A few hands slowly inched up. But when their principal, Ms. Connelly, asked what could be done to make being the A-plus student seem as important as being the star basketball player, she was met with silence.
For teachers, bonuses come with ambivalence. So toxic was the idea of merit pay for individual teachers that the union insisted that bonus pools be awarded to whole schools to be divided up by joint labor-management committees, either evenly among union members or by singling out exceptional teachers.
Still, nearly 90 percent of the 200 schools offered the chance to join the teacher bonus program are participating, after a vote with each school’s chapter of the teachers’ union. At many schools this year, including P.S. 188 and J.H.S. 123, a decision has already been made to distribute any money they get across the board, and they are trying to include secretaries and other staff members as well.
No teachers were willing to say the rewards were unwelcome, but few said the potential windfall would push them to work harder.
“It’s better than a slap in the face,” said Ms. Lopez, who has taught at P.S. 188 for more than a decade. “But honestly, I don’t think about it. We’re here every day working and pushing; that’s what we’ve been doing for years. We don’t come into this for the money, and most of us don’t leave it because of the money.”
Newer teachers seemed more positive, saying the bonus was a rare chance to be rewarded.
“I tell my students all the time that I can sit in the back and hand them worksheets and get the same amount of money as I do if I stand in front of the class working with high energy the entire time,” said Christina Varghese, the lead math teacher at J.H.S. 123, who is in her 10th year of teaching. “What’s the motivation there? At least this gives us something to work toward.”
It will be months before Ms. Slatin and her teachers know whether they have earned the bonus, but initial test scores are promising. On one test designed to mimic the state math exam, 77 percent of fourth graders met state standards. Roughly half of those who did not were just below the cutoff, making it possible that more than 80 percent of the students would pass the test this year — a virtual dream for the school.
“We want to believe it, but it makes me nervous,” Ms. Slatin said. “Those are not numbers we are used to seeing.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 6, 2008
A picture caption on Wednesday with a front-page article about cash incentives for students, teachers and principals in New York City public schools misidentified the position held by Dalia Johnson at Public School 188 in Manhattan. She is director of the middle school, not the school’s overall director.