Pa. Doles Out $10 Million To Reward Schools
Pizza parties are trite. A trip to McDonald's is passé.
Pennsylvania has expanded on a grand scale the notion of rewarding schools for high performance, using a tried-and-true incentive--cash. The state last month gave $10 million to 994 schools that scored exceptionally well on statewide tests.
In doing so, Pennsylvania joined a growing trend among states toward making monetary rewards part of an overall accountability system designed to provide real benefits for academic success. Fourteen states now offer some sort of financial rewards or bonuses to schools or teachers.
Supporters say such payments foster teacher collaboration and encourage districts to set clear goals. Critics contend they simply force educators to teach to state tests.
Pennsylvania's funds, allocated in the 1997-98 budget, were paid to schools that improved their scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment by at least 50 points.
The test measures reading and mathematics skills in grades 5, 8, and 11. Vocational schools that increased their PSSA scores and job placements also received rewards.
In addition, money was paid to schools where attendance increased by at least 0.75 percent.
"This is an incentive program that says to individual schools, 'Do better than you did last year,' Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, said in a statement. "This way, the competition is internal, and the teachers and students know they're competing against themselves. That's a very rewarding kind of competition."
The average doled out to each school for improved achievement was $9,211, officials said. The average reward for attendance was $9,005.
The payments were based on the number of students in a school, and schools were eligible to receive both types of awards. The largest payment went to Edison/Fareira High School in Philadelphia, which received $107,737 for achievement on the PSSA.
The state requires that at least 50 percent of each school's award go toward improving instructional programs, while up to 25 percent can be paid to teachers. A school committee chaired by principals and composed of parents, teachers, and community and business leaders will determine the allocation of the remaining money.
Experts say it is not surprising that Pennsylvania schools raised their achievement. Some research shows that such incentive programs can boost test scores.
In North Carolina, for example, 84 percent of students in grades K-8 met state standards in 1998, compared with 57 percent in 1997, following implementation of that state's incentive plan, officials said.
The North Carolina program, first tested during the 1995- 96 school year, pays teachers bonuses of as much as $1,500 for improved scores.
"The biggest pro is that [incentive programs] provide really clear goals for teachers and the entire system," said Carolyn Kelley, an associate professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is studying the effectiveness of incentive and reward programs. "They seem to promote collaboration among teachers and provide a better focus for that collaboration."
Overemphasis on Tests?
But some critics believe the high test scores produced can be deceiving.
Teachers and principals may end up so preoccupied with tests that "they may not provide the kind of time it takes to give students a comprehensive education," said John I. Wilson, the executive director of the North Carolina Association of Educators.
Schools may feel pressure to raise their scores year after year and may become frustrated when they can't reach the mark, Mr. Wilson argued. Some will be labeled as low-performing, which can create a stigma and lead to an exodus of teachers.
Moreover, schools that are already performing at a high level may be content to rest on their laurels and be rewarded for maintaining the status quo, Mr. Wilson said.
Incentive programs are also criticized for focusing on the performance of schools rather than the successes of individual students. Many principals, though, disregard the criticism and view the extra dollars as a welcome perk earned for a job well done.
In Pennsylvania, the real goal is ensuring success on the PSSA, said Robert A. Anderson, the principal of Wissashickon High School in the Wissashickon district. The school, in the Philadelphia suburb of Ambler, earned $46,912 for raising its scores 280 points on the 1,600-point test.
And, of course, an extra bundle of cash doesn't hurt, either.
The school tried to encourage a serious attitude among students last year, Mr. Anderson said, by requiring that test results be recorded on transcripts, which are sent to colleges.
Teachers were trained in testing procedures, and administrators ensured that students enjoyed a quiet environment while taking the exam.
"The question is, 'Will we be able to duplicate [significant gains] again next year?' " Mr. Anderson said. "I don't think so."
Vol. 18, Issue 8, Page 5