Thursday, September 9, 2010

Merit-based pay for students and parents?

The notion of linking teacher salaries to student outcomes has been one of the country's most talked-about education reform topics of late, causing us to wonder in an earlier blog whether Milwaukee's new superintendent had this controversial idea on his radar screen.

But now, out of Houston, comes a concept that undoubtedly would generate even more controversy if attempted locally: paying students and parents for improved academic performance.

A recent article in the Houston Chronicle describes a $1.5 million pilot program approved by the Houston Independent School District (HISD) that will allow families at certain HISD schools to earn more than $1,000 for enhanced student achievement in fifth grade math. The program will be funded by a Dallas foundation.

According to the article, fifth graders at the selected schools will be able to earn up to $440 for passing tests showing they have mastered certain mathematical concepts. Parents of successful students can earn another $400 as a reward for making sure their children did the necessary work to pass the tests, as well as $180 for attending nine parent-teacher conferences. There's also something in the deal for teachers, who can earn up to $40 per student for holding the parent-teacher conferences.

Interestingly, a third party to this seemingly radical idea is Harvard University's Education Innovation Laboratory, which has formed a research partnership with HISD. The same Harvard researchers conducted a comprehensive experiment of the "pay for grades" concept in Chicago, Dallas, New York and Washington that was featured last spring in Time magazine. The research team will compare student test scores at HISD schools that are participating in the program with schools that are not. It also will examine the incentives' impacts on other barometers of student success, such as attendance rates and behavior.

The Chronicle story engendered howls of outrage from readers commenting on the paper's website, many of whom questioned why anyone should be rewarding parents for fulfilling their parental responsibilities and students for doing what's in their own best interest. School district officials quoted in the article argue, however, that over-worked and over-stressed low-income parents may need an incentive to become more involved, and at this point it's just a research project aimed at determining whether financial incentives truly would make a difference.

Given the political outcry that likely would occur even if the pilot turns out to be successful, it's difficult to imagine it taking hold across the country. Still, in light of the constant refrain for bold and innovative reform in our urban schools, can you blame Houston for trying?

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