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School Cash Incentives Not So Rewarding


December 11, 2009

Project Opening Doors is a misguided experiment launched at nine schools across Connecticut in 2008. Funded in part by Exxon Mobil and administered by the Connecticut Business and Industry Foundation, the program offers cash incentives to teachers and students with the goal of improving the performance of low-income and minority students on Advanced Placement exams.

The insistence that cash bonuses be paid to teachers whose students receive a passing score on AP exams, with or without the agreement of the local teachers association, goes against more than four decades of public sector labor law in Connecticut.

That is why teacher unions have objected to the introduction of the program in Connecticut school districts and why litigation challenging the project continues in six of the school districts where it currently operates.

School districts' motives for risking strained labor relations are not difficult to guess. As school budgets have been battered, all courses outside the core curriculum, including AP courses, have become vulnerable to the budget ax. This has made districts increasingly willing to accept funding with strings.

Besides its insistence that cash incentives be incorporated into the program, Project Opening Doors requires districts to provide local taxpayer funds as a condition of receiving a grant. The amounts are not insignificant. The Stamford Board of Education provided $51,000 for the program at Westhill High School last year. New London's program cost the district roughly $40,000, and East Hartford was close behind with a contribution of around $36,000.

We must ask whether the acceptance of a great deal of money with so many strings is in the public interest. Because some of the funding comes from local school board budgets, it becomes necessary to take a good look at whether the project represents the best approach to improving AP results.

Between the money contributed by the project and the contributions of school districts, more than $1 million was spent in the 2008-2009 school year on Project Opening Doors at nine school sites.

Recently, the project announced its first results. In the first year, the number of AP exams passed in Project Opening Doors sites went up 12 percent from 522 to 586, an increase of 64 exams passed. The percentage of students who passed at the program's schools,on the other hand, tumbled from 61 percent to 43 percent.

Where there was success, it was limited to a few subjects. Ten of the 20 new courses offered at Project Opening Doors sites were in environmental science and statistics. These two courses were responsible for 97 percent of the increase in additional exams passed.

Pass rates declined in all subjects, including these two. Of more concern, however, is that the total number of exams passed in calculus, computer science, physics and English literature declined. This is hardly the stunning success portrayed by the program's backers.

Regarding the high failure rates, Project Opening Doors proponents claim that exposure to a challenging curriculum such as AP is important in and of itself. This is true. Mere exposure, however, is not a measure of absolute effectiveness. Increased participation does not have to be accompanied by diminished pass rates.

Conard High School in West Hartford, one of our state's true AP success stories, has seen overall participation climb while average scores also increased. The school's participation rate is the highest in the state. Participation for black and Hispanic students taking AP exams has increased 30 percent in the last three years alone. The pass rate on the 961 exams taken by Conard students is a stunning 70 percent.

Conard's experience shows that AP success does not have to be tied to largely untested mechanisms such as cash incentives. More effective programs can be created.

Rather than surrendering our schools to the dictates of private business, we should give genuine authority and real decision-making to the education professionals. Let teachers and administrators design what they believe to be the best possible programs to be implemented at the best possible times in our students' lives.

That, however, would require adequate funding from the state. There's the rub.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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