When bribery succeeds

Okay, let’s be honest here.  Teachers – like parents – sometimes resort to bribery. If you write an additional practice essay  I’ll give you extra credt ( my personal favorite.) If you work quietly and productively at your desks for 15 minutes, we’ll watch the last ten minutes of that video before the bell rings.

But what about bribing teachers? Teachers, or perhaps more accurately their official representatives, have generally opposed policies that tie pay to measures of performance, fighting instead for pay increases based on seniority and degrees (despite little or no evidence that a masters in education improves teaching skills.) One reason for this opposition, of course, is the widespread suspicion of most measures of performance, especially those based on standardized tests.

But here’s a pay for performance scheme that intrigues me, and one that seems to have paid off. Today’s Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “AP Test Scores Rise, Reversing Stagnation.”

The rise was slight—the nation’s public-school graduating class of 2012 posted an average score of 2.83 out of 5, compared with 2.80 for 2011. However, it marked a change from years of declining or stagnating scores, which educators have attributed to the growing number of students taking the tests, many of them less well prepared. Even with the improvement, the 2012 score falls short of the 2.94 average posted for 2002.


But here’s the part that intrigued me:

One notable highlight in the report is Florida, whose students took about 10% of all the exams given. Of the state’s graduating seniors, 27.3% scored a 3 or higher last year, up from 14.4% a decade ago—a gain second only to Maryland, which tests far fewer students. The average score for all AP exams in Florida jumped to 2.43, the first increase in a decade, the data show.

In Florida, teachers receive a $50 bonus for every student who scores at least a 3, and the state includes the participation and pass rates on every high school’s public report card, raising the pressure for schools to do well.

Tony Bennett, Florida’s education commissioner, said the state also has made a concerted effort to identify teenagers who might succeed in AP courses and prod them into taking the tougher classes. “We are at a place in Florida where AP is becoming commonplace in the educational landscape,” he added.

I’ve argued before that AP tests are good measures of performance – note that I said good, not great – because students must write analytical essays as well as answer fairly demanding multiple choice questions. The exams are also content based. In other words, students must demonstrate that they’ve actually learned something . . . and not just that they have acquired “higher order skills.”

In my experience, however, AP teachers often balk at recruiting more students into their AP classes, because their principals or school districts focus on average test scores . . . which almost invariably drop as enrollment expands. (Kudos here to my principal, who always encouraged us to expand AP enrollment and understood and anticipated the consequences.) A $50 per head pass prize, on the other hand, rewards teachers who BOTH recruit more AP students and bring as many as possble to the finish line.

Even the best AP teacher can’t ensure that every student passes, but teacher effort does make a difference. For example, all of the AP tests that I “taught to” included multiple essay questions. The more essays students wrote, in my experience, the greater the likelihood that they would succeed on the test. But trust me: Grading AP essays, or at least grading them thoroughly and well, is very time-consuming. Why not a little reward for this extra effort?



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