Pay to learn is working in New York

Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad has probably never met Soledad Moya, an eighth-grader at Middle School 302 in the South Bronx. But both are big believers in an approach that has people wringing their hands and wagging their fingers: paying students to perform on standardized tests. Moya’s school is a 45-minute subway ride from the Manhattan hotel where Broad took the stage at last month’s Clinton Global Initiative to announce a $6-million grant to help launch EdLabs -- an initiative at Harvard University to advance innovations in public schools.

EdLab’s first order of business is to determine if Spark -- the pilot financial incentive program at Moya’s school and 58 others in New York City -- leads to concrete improvements in academic achievement. Seventh-graders can earn up to $50 a test -- for 10 assessment tests throughout the year. There’s a similar program for fourth-graders. The money goes into a bank account that only the student can access. The better you do, the more money you earn, up to $500 a year for seventh-graders. The idea is to make school tangible for disadvantaged kids -- short-term rewards that are in their long-term best interest.

Is it working? That depends on whom you ask.

Pundits and some in the media say Spark is bribing kids; they should love learning for learning’s sake. But if you talk with those actually participating in the pilot program -- the students, administrators and teachers -- you hear something different.

Moya said she wasn’t a “studying kind of” person before the awards. Now she and her friends like to look in the dictionary and memorize words and their definitions, and they ask their teachers for more practice tests. Even though she’s not eligible for the awards now that she’s in eighth grade, she’s still studying harder before tests, she said. “Once you get started with something, you keep doing it.”

The changes she saw in students like Moya caused Lisa Cullen -- a literacy and social studies teacher at the school -- to go from skeptic to supporter: “I saw how it takes away the uphill battle you have trying to get students to study for tests.” She saw a definite increase in students’ excitement, enthusiasm and effort.

That’s no small feat when test-taking ranks low on the priority list of students whose lives are crammed with adult responsibilities, Cullen said. “The ideal would be for every kid to love learning, but that’s impossible in today’s world.” One of Cullen’s students is 10 minutes late every day because she takes two subway trains and a bus to get her little brother to school. She then has to watch him after school until her mom gets back from her third job. “She and all my students are so stressed all the time.”

Principal Angel Rodriguez believes the Spark incentives will get the biggest results with the most challenging students -- whom he calls “the bottom third.” Rodriguez said virtually all of his students struggle with poverty, and many live in one of the 18 nearby homeless shelters. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had parents in my office that are high on heroin or crack, or reek of alcohol,” he said.

Despite these challenges, test scores rose substantially last year for seventh-graders at the school. Rodriguez thinks the Spark incentives were a big factor. The percentage of seventh-graders meeting the state standards for English-language arts rose 12 points over the previous year’s scores. For math standards, the gain was 15 percentage points.

Rodriguez has no patience for the critics. “Thank God my father didn’t listen to them,” said Rodriguez, who grew up a few blocks from the school. “He had to use what he had to motivate me.” He would tell Rodriguez he could get a new pair of Converse sneakers if he got a 90 on an upcoming test, Rodriguez said. “Guess what I got on that test?”

Parents at the school feel the same way. “Not one parent complained,” Rodriguez said. “One hundred percent said, ‘Sign me up.’ ”

Spark’s creators have been fielding calls from all over the country, but surprisingly not from California. That’s too bad. California has one of the country’s widest achievement gaps. That’s because, according to a new report from UC Berkeley, unlike in most states, the majority of California’s public students are from lower-achieving groups -- Latinos, African Americans and English-language learners -- or the “bottom third,” whom Rodriguez thinks Spark will help the most.

EdLab’s evaluation of Spark will come out in 2009. California educators should look beyond the rhetoric and examine this approach. We can’t afford to dismiss it outright. As Rodriguez said, “What price do you place on a seventh-grader whose lack of motivation is leading to failure?”

Anne Stuhldreher is a fellow at the New America Foundation.