Want better math scores? Pay students who do well

From an article by Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, in the June/July 2008 issue of Ripon Forum:

The United States continually ranks near the bottom in OECD rankings of student mathematical achievement. The National Science Foundation found that in 2005 only 35 percent of U.S. eighth graders were deemed to be proficient in math. China and India graduate five times as many engineers as the United States.

…[A]s we look for solutions to rapidly improve math and science education in the United States, it is important that we distinguish between merely investing more in our current education bureaucracies and actually investing in math and science education. The former would simply be doing more of what we are already doing and expecting a different result. Albert Einstein defined this as the definition of insanity. The latter will require bold changes in the current system and to develop new systems of learning that are very different than what we are used to and totally outside the current education system….

We should also experiment with offering direct incentives to students to accelerate their pace of learning beyond what is expected of them by school curricula. Imagine if students who finish high school early were given the cost of their remaining years in the form of scholarships. This would cost the taxpayers nothing and motivate students – especially those in poorer neighborhoods – to learn as rapidly as possible.

A more radical idea is to pay students directly for getting a B or better in their math and science classes. The idea offends many who either believe learning should be its own reward or don't think we should place special value on math and science over the arts, humanities and social sciences.

However, if we are serious that the failure of our math and science education is the second greatest threat to America's national security, there is nothing wrong with providing extra motivation for students to succeed in areas where we have the most urgent need.

Money is a powerful motivator in every other area of American life. Why should education be any different?