Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Paying kids to take AP tests

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal ran an interesting article about the National Math and Science Initiative, which pays kids to take and pass AP tests. You can read a press release from ExxonMobil, one of the lead sponsors, here.

NMSI builds on a Texas program that's been shelling out cash for good AP scores for almost a decade. Dallas-based Advanced Placement Strategies, Inc. began in 1996, when only 156 students passed AP tests in math and science at the original 10 Dallas schools in the program. This jumped to 877 last year. The program has now expanded to 64 schools. Students receive $100-$500 for passing the test, with students from poorer schools often getting more. Teachers get training bonuses -- $500 to $1,000 for becoming AP instructors, and lead teachers who coordinate the programs in the schools get $5,000.

Within five years, NMSI plans to have math & science AP incentive programs running in 150 school districts, and to set up teacher training programs at 50 universities.

Frankly, I think this is a great idea. For starters, what gets measured and rewarded gets done. Companies pay bonuses for precisely this reason. We can have a whole philosophical discussion about whether it's better to be externally or internally motivated (take the AP test to earn $500 or for the love of knowledge?) but this is a luxury we don't really have when it comes to math and science education (see the NAEP scores post, below). Over time we may all become members of Free Agent Nation, building our own businesses that satisfy internal desires for meaning and autonomy, but currently most people work for other people's companies -- like ExxonMobil -- and they work for pay. They tend to work more if promised more pay. So why not pay kids and teachers to do more of what this country has said we need to focus on?

Second, this national initiative isn't a tax-funded program. ExxonMobil can spend their money on whatever they'd like, and putting it toward better educational outcomes strikes me as smart for a company that needs to hire a lot of engineers. NMSI also is in talks with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to put in some money. As readers of this blog know, the Gates Foundation's efforts in education have so far been mediocre at best and damaging at worst. Paying kids to pass AP exams -- which do show specific content mastery in tough areas -- would be a much better use of Bill Gates' money than his small schools initiative, which pretty much hasn't worked. Using private money also gets around the problem of entrenched bureaucracy, and unions, which for some reason are loathe to allow schools to pay more for better teachers with skills that are in demand.

Ultimately, I see this as a stepping stone to a world where teachers with in-demand skills -- such as math and science qualifications -- earn more. People with these skills have more career options, and so few want to consider teaching, where they'll earn less than the teacher down the hall who's done nothing but sit there for 20 years, solely for reasons of seniority. I also like the idea of rewarding kids for outcomes. It takes a lot of work and study time to get a 5 on an AP Chemistry or calculus or biology test. That's time kids could be working at part-time jobs or watching TV. If the U.S. has decided that it would be better for kids to spend more time studying chemistry than watching Grey's Anatomy, then why not create incentives for them to do so?

The usual suspects, of course, have complained about all this. Robert Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, told the WSJ that the approach involves "basing education reform on a series of bribes to kids and bounties to teachers." But nothing else seems to be working, and I'm guessing Schaeffer would take a different job if he were offered twice the pay. It's silly to say people shouldn't base decisions on money when almost all of us do.


Anonymous said...

I think this is an excellent idea. I agree with every point you make in support of it. My concern is the future of our nation, not the future of the teacher’s union.

We pay our kids for each report card. They are intrinsically motivated, but are also pleased to be rewarded for hard work and accomplishment. They receive:

$8.00 per A
$5.00 per high B (90-92%)
$3.00 per B (86-89%)

If they receive an A in every subject, they get a $50.00 bonus!

ananda said...

Hi Laura,

I am Anarghya's dad. Wanted to thank you personally for writing such a nice article on her. People from far and wide have read your article and called in. I liked the sentance where you have captured that I taught her math in the car while dropping her off. Could we have laminated copy of the article with the photo with your autograph please? That would be a nice one to cherish. Thanks again
best regards