Incentive Payouts Begin For City Students

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The New York Sun

A philanthropic group today will hand out a total of almost $1 million to top-performing New York City high school students who scored well on tough end-of-year tests.

Called the Rewarding Achievement program, or REACH, the effort is one of several new projects in New York and around the country that are using cash prizes as a lure to get inner-city students to succeed in school.

Each project prizes different behaviors thought to be strongly connected to a student’s chances of academic success.

The REACH program is focusing on Advanced Placement exams, challenging exams written by the College Board that test students on subjects ranging from calculus to English literature to biology.

Students will get $1,000 for every perfect 5 out of 5 score on an AP test; $750 for a 4 out of 5, and $500 for a 3.

More than 1,000 students at 31 high schools across the city participated. The schools were selected for having high percentages of low-income black and Hispanic students and for having sizable numbers of students already taking AP exams.

So far, the program has produced 1,161 awardees getting cash prizes, but no definitive verdict on whether the incentives actually work.

A 17-year-old entering his senior year at Grover Cleveland High School in Queens, Eric Yanez, is getting $2,750 after scoring one 5, one 4, and two 3s.

Mr. Yanez, who worked two jobs during the school year, said he plans to spend the reward on a road trip he could not have taken without the extra cash.

A strong student who first took calculus as a high school sophomore, Mr. Yanez said the cash reward gave him extra motivation.

“What are grades, really? This was, ‘I’m getting paid,'” he said.

The overall data being released by REACH today paints a muted picture of the program’s effectiveness.

The rate at which students in the program passed AP exams fell slightly, to 32% from 35% last year. Still, 19 of the 31 participating schools did see their passing rates increase.

The project’s organizers said they believe their effort, which began last October, will show better results in this academic year, when students can take the program into account when signing up for classes — and once students realize the cash is a solid promise.

“Those checks are going to clear,” a founder of the program, the hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, said. “Everyone’s going to believe at that point.”

Efforts to use money as an incentive for better performance have been criticized by some.

“The ones that are likely to succeed are the ones that already would have succeeded,” the executive director of the group Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson, said. “You’re creating more disparity.”

The philanthropic arm of the firm Pershing Square Capital Management is financing the program.


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