The NYT has an encouraging story on the how an urban school near Boston is using Advanced Placement classes to promote an environment of learning. The number of students opting to take AP classes has increased dramatically with the help of monetary incentives for students and teachers:
South High students said Mr. Nystrom and his colleagues had transformed the culture of a tough urban school, making it cool for boys with low-slung jeans who idolize rappers like Lil Wayne to take the hardest classes.
They were helped by the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit network that provided laboratory equipment and special training for teachers and organized afternoon tutoring and Saturday sessions. It also paid $100 each to students who scored a 3 or above on the A.P. exam— and to their teachers, who can also earn additional rewards. Because 43 of his students passed the exam this year, far above his target, Mr. Nystrom will add a $7,300 check to his $72,000 salary.
Programs like the National Math and Science Initiative demonstrate that even though the education many students receive in urban schools is poor, it does not have to be that way. One piece of the education problem in this country is that our standards are so low. The unacceptable, we accept; the mediocre, we praise.
In a competitive world, this will not be enough.
There are too many surveys that show that American kids do worse than their international peers — but feel better about their accomplishments. Puffing kids up on self esteem not grounded in real achievement is a deeply disempowering form of child abuse. It deceives young people about the actual world, and it reduces their chances of doing well in it.