Sunday, February 14, 2016

Paying Students for Scores

The Houston Independent School District is trying another way to boost AP test scores-- offer students and teachers a bounty. For every score in the 3-5 range, students-- and their teachers-- get $100.

While this is new in Houston, HISD is actually joining several other districts around the country in this use of bribes incentives for high schoolers.

While there may be similar-ish programs in districts across the country, the big dog in the AP bribery biz is the National Math and Science Initiative. NMSI is an organization that was launched "to address one of this nation’s greatest economic and intellectual threats – the declining number of students who are prepared to take rigorous college courses in math and science and are equipped for careers in those fields." You may recognize that as a classic reformster talking point-- low test scores are a threat to our national security-- and in fact, the big launching funders of NMSI include Exxon, the Michael and Susan Dell foundation, and the Gates Foundation. Partners also include the US Department of Education and the College Board, because why not fund an advocacy group that is telling everyone that your product is really important. This isn't philanthropy-- it's marketing.

And market they do. The college-ready initiative that supports the AP score pay-off plan features writing like this:

The AP curriculum is the best indicator available of whether students are prepared for college-level work.  Students who master AP courses are three times more likely to graduate from college. For minority students, that multiplier is even greater: African American and Hispanic students who succeed in AP courses are four times more likely to graduate from college.

Or students who are more likely to finish college are more likely to do college-preppy things like take AP courses. Man, sorting out correlation and causation must be really hard, because so few people want to actually do it.

The operation is pretty simple-- NMSI unloads a giant pile of money with a college-prep program and the rewards begin as NSMI works to transform the culture of the school. This "grant" program has been operating since 2008, starting out in Alabama, Kentucky, Arkansas, Virginia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Press has been generally positive when the program popped up in big mainstream outlets like the NYT and US Today. 

Are there issues with this? Well, yes-- any time we inject monetary bribery into education, we are essentially admitting that we can't think of any better reason for learning. That kind of debasement of education is typical of the reformster movement which holds as a foundational belief that the only reason to do things is to get a financial reward.

On the other hand, bribery was already cemented into the foundation of the AP product anyway-- the whole selling point has always been, "Take this course, score well on this test, and it will save you some bucks on your college education. Ka-ching." The AP appeal is to take a challenging course and get college credit. NMSI's program doesn't do much more than move payday forward. The one new feature added by the program is the increased incentive for AP teachers to drop everything and lay into test prep with a vengeance. If you think AP tests are not open to test prep, I have a bridge to sell you. In some courses, the test prep looks enough like real education to be tolerable, though under David Coleman's leadership, that is changing. What is true across the board is that hooking into the AP universe can be just a way to pay the College Board to write your curriculum for you.

NMSI may have to crank their program up soon. It pays bounty on scores from 3 to 5, but at least in my neck of the woods, colleges are increasingly rejecting 3s. Because they have high standards about how often they're willing to give up their own revenue in order to bolster the College Board's business plan.

It would be nice to talk about things like getting ready for college by acquiring actual knowledge and skills. As I often tell my juniors, "I understand that you have to worry about getting into the college of your choice, but you do realize that once you get there, they'll want you to show that you know stuff, too." An actual education is worth more than a hundred bucks.


  1. So, if a teacher "helped" some of the students a bit, then she might be able to earn a little extra money? Good idea.

    Connecting test scores to money in this fashion is a really bad idea. Just look at all the cheating scandals in the past 20 years. There have been lots.

    And I don't mean this as a criticism of teachers. It's human nature. Put easy money like that in someone's grasp, and lots of people in lots of occupations will bend the rules to get it. Teachers are human, and quite a few are underpaid.

  2. College Board needs to go away. It is a phony "non-profit" that sells test prep education and pays numerous executives six and seven figure salaries.

    AP test prep style education is not authentic college level education. If students feel ready for genuine college courses, they should take community college classes and their schools should work to make that more possible.

    Paying students for test success undermines intrinsic need. It destroys the love of learning. Amateurs with a lot of resources do a lot of damage when they institute their own unstudied schemes to improve education. They just don't have the expertise needed to make wise decisions about learning.

  3. As an alum, I can testify that the minuses outweigh the pluses for most teachers and kids. IMHO,offering such bonuses is a perversion and an insult to those of us who try to teach with integrity and reflect daily on our practice to benefit our students.

    Some teachers made a killing, but by their own report, the physics teachers who did well attributed it to the program sweeping more talent up into their classes rather than anything innate in their teaching or the program.

    It is not easy money and the time the program required actually cost me a lot of money in other income. Time required by the program is not compensated at a wage rate ($500 stipend for 1 week in summer and 5 weekends.) You only make money if kids pass the exam. The selling point to teachers is you get AP training. This is a much greater benefit for inexperienced teachers, and I found it took away from precious time I needed to plan for AP and the other 5 non-AP classes I was teaching.

    To give credit, I found most of the trainers concentrated on the pedagogy and content that most people find challenging. In my sessions was more collegial than one person doing a stand and deliver. Physics teachers usually have pretty good mutual respect.This was in contrast to the one AP workshop I went to which I interpreted as "tricks to cram more memorized material in a short time to get test results." This is not what most people in the sciences value.

    I have found it very difficult to get research on the effectiveness of NMSI. The numbers are pretty hazy, and everything I could find was produced by the corporation itself. I don't think there is any outside oversight evaluating results and impacts. The survey I took at the end of the program had no space for feedback that would allow any criticism of the program, only of the presenters. I was not surprised.

  4. Funny this should rear its head in Houston, as NMSI has its origins in Texas. Its founder is Tom Luce, who served in Bush II’s cabinet as an under secretrary of education. Failing to win the governor’s race in Texas, he was inspired to form “two nonprofit ventures that led public schools across the United States to measure performance based on standardized tests.” An early innovator (read NCLB) – all good ideas come from Texas!

    The goal of NMSI and its Massachusetts incarnation, MMSI, is to increase minority enrollment in AP classes (not to increase success in these classes). We had this program imposed on our school when the superintendent realized that our 89% minority student body would get kickass results because we were already a selective admisssions school. The scheduling was completely distorted in order to enroll as many kids as possible in AP courses in sciences, math and English. The AP classes we were already running in US History and World Languages were excluded from "benefits" like $100 payments to students as the focus was on so-called STEM classes. The stated goal was that every student should be enrolled in at least one AP class. At a school that was already geared to continuing on to college, many students were completely stressed out as they tried to take 3 or 4 AP classes in a year, and of course, the number of passing grades overall dwindled.

    At the same time, the College Board began insisting that teachers had to take AP training, which had not been true previously. AP teachers were also required to write, submit and get approval from the College Board for their syllabus. Until then, teachers were in control of their curriculum. My school saw a tidal wave of consultants running PD to chart out "vertical alignment"; CD's (remember those?); texts and workbooks; test prep materials; and "required" Saturday and summer classes for teachers and kids. All of the above translate, naturally, to $$$ for the College Board.

    My older daughter had received credit for her AP's four years earlier (saving a year's tuition!) and her younger siblings were applying to college at this time. When I asked the same caliber of colleges about AP credits, many of them were no longer accepting them because the "credential has been devalued".

    So, the only real question is: "Cui bono?" I think we know the answer. It ain't the kids.

    Christine Langhoff