Sat, Aug 11, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Does cash for test scores teach the wrong lesson?

A US program encouraging pupils from poor families to study more could instead result in resentment and depression, critics say

By Joseph Berger  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Should cash be used to spur children to do better on reading and math tests?

Suzanne Windland, a homeowner raising three children in a placid enclave of Queens, New York, doesn't think so. Her seventh grader, Alexandra, she said, had perfect scores last year. But she doesn't want New York City's Department of Education to hand her US$500 in spending cash for that achievement.

That's what Alexandra would earn if her school was part of a pilot program that will reward fourth and seventh graders with US$100 to US$500, depending on how well they perform on 10 tests in the next year.

Windland wants Alexandra to do well for all the timeless reasons -- to cultivate a love of learning, advance to more competitive schools and the like. She has on occasion bought her children toys or taken them out for dinner when they brought home pleasurable report cards, but she does not believe in dangling rewards beforehand.

"It's like giving kids an allowance because they wake up every morning and brush their teeth and go off to school," she said. "That's their job. That's what they're supposed to be doing."

Actually, Alexandra will probably not be eligible for the reward because the program, which has been adapted from a similar Mexican cash incentives plan, is aimed largely at schools with students from low-income families. Windland, who grew up for a time on food stamps but now works as coordinator of volunteers for a social services agency, thinks it is unfair that Alexandra will see other seventh graders being rewarded for far lower scores, while she savors only the intangible plums of pride and satisfaction.

Windland predicts that the impact of the program may be paradoxical, with resentment depressing the achievement of hard workers.

"The kids who don't get reimbursed are going to say, `Why should I bother!'" Windland said.

There are parents who support the program. And Schools Chancellor Joel Klein responds to skeptics by arguing that no one has figured out how to get more poorer children engaged in learning. Trumpeting the long-term benefits of education, the better jobs and lives well lived has not worked. Cash just might.

"There are lots of kids who think education is not relevant to them, who think education is a waste of time," he said in an interview.

Still, critics warn Klein to be prepared for a backlash from families, both poor and more well off.

The program will foster "ill will," said Tim Johnson, chairman of the Chancellor's Parent Advisory Council, whose members include Windland.

"The word bribe comes to mind," he said. "You certainly don't want kids with identical abilities, where one gets paid and the other doesn't."

Some parents, like Nakida Chambers-Camille, a school administrative assistant, think the program should be given a shot.

Chambers-Camille has a seventh grader, Leana, at a school that probably won't qualify. Leana, she chuckled, may think that is unfair. But Camille believes such sweeteners may ultimately benefit her daughter.

"If that's going to help the child my child is playing with, then I'm all for it," she said. "I want my child associating with people who have education as a priority. If that child is not learning, that child will pull my child down with her."

But Klein also has some opponents in poorer communities that might benefit. Robert Reed, president of the parents' association of Public School 46 in Harlem, a school where nearly all students qualify for free lunches, called the program "dead wrong" in an e-mail interview, saying children learn "because they want it, not because they're getting paid."

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