In one of his most controversial moves since assuming control of the New York City public school system, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled a pilot program this week that will pay poor students up to $500 per year for posting stellar test scores.
On the low end of the pay scale, fourth-graders will get up to $25 for a perfect score on each of 10 standardized tests taken throughout the academic year, as well as $5 just for showing up for the exam. On the high end, seventh-graders can earn as much as $50 per test — totaling up to $500 per year for a perfect record. They will receive $10 for simply taking the test.
An estimated 9,000 students from 40 schools will participate in the pilot program, which was designed by private consultants and professors to test whether small cash incentives help close the achievement gap for the city’s poorest pupils.
Education officials are currently trying to lure principals across the city, who can sign up for the program in late June. The department has yet to release a list of participating schools that shows which sites in Queens will be participating.
Under the pilot program, consultants will monitor each school’s progress for two years, eventually using students’ test results to decide whether to renew or expand it.
The ambitious incentive program is the brainchild of Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who was recently hired into the upper ranks of the Department of Education as “chief equality officer.” From that post, the professor will advise the mayor and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein on how to boost the persistently low scores and graduation rates of poor black and Hispanic students.
Last week, city officials hailed Fryer’s academic credentials after announcing the new program. “He is extremely well respected and has an incredible background and list of accolades,” said Debra Wexler, an education department spokeswoman.
Fryer’s plan to dole out cash for good scores comes as part of the mayor’s broader antipoverty initiative — intended to influence low-income adult behavior and promote better longterm decision-making, officials said. Key markers for success in the program will be holding a full-time job, maintaining health insurance, making regular doctors’ visits and boosting academic achievement.
The privately funded effort targets three groups — families, students and adults in Section 8 housing — and is modeled after a program in Mexico that has boasted considerable success in reducing severe rural poverty. Already, the mayor has attracted enough private donors to raise the $53 million needed for the effort, even ponying up his own funds to get the ball rolling.
In addition to Fryer’s incentive program for students, the mayor’s initiative will also feature a family-based component that, among other things, rewards parents up to $25 for attending a parent-teacher conference and $50 per month for each child who posts a 95 percent attendance record.
High school students can earn $50 for taking the PSAT exam, and will share $600 with their parents for annually accumulating 11 credits, officials said. Additionally, families will receive a $400 bonus for each child who graduates high school.
About 2,550 families from Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan are expected to participate in the family-focused component of Bloomberg’s program. City officials said they would likely enroll Queens families in the future, if the proposal gets renewed and expanded after its two-year trial phase.
In touting this ambitious plan, advocates cited gains made in other cities that have adopted cash incentive programs — including Chelsea, Mass., and Dallas, where some pupils get $2 for every book they read.
Still, some parents were heavily critical of the new program. At a parent’s forum in Fresh Meadows last week, Robert Caloras of Little Neck blasted the mayor for imposing what he called an incentives-based business model on public education.
By handing out money for good grades, Caloras said the program will undermine the value of learning for love of the topic or the satisfaction of getting a good grade. “Frankly, I find the idea a little repulsive,” he told Deputy Schools Chancellor Chris Cerf. “Some people work hard without ever getting a bonus. Why do they continue? Because they love their jobs. That’s what we need to be teaching our kids.”