CALIFORNIA is offering cash bonuses to persuade its worst schools to improve after its first ranking exercise showed that 88 per cent of state schools scored below the target for academic achievement.
Teachers and principals whose students improve will also be eligible for a one-off bonus.
The California ranking is the most significant result of a new trend in the United States to embarrass poor schools into improving their performance.
But so disappointing were the results that the state's governor, Gray Davis, has since pledged that he will not seek re-election in 2002 unless test scores rise, and the worst schools have been threatened with sanctions if they don't. These could include anything from the removal of the principal to wholesale takeover by the state.
The carrot to this stick is the promise of cash payments to schools, which are to be calculated under a formula that multiplies the number of students by the average gain in test scores. Meanwhile, more than 400 low-performing schools are being showered with millions of dollars to hire consultants and come up with plans to increase student achievement.
"The era of accountability has finally begun in public education," Governor Davis said.
Twentysix of the 50 US states publicly rank their schools - California being the largest - in the hope that they will be embarrassed into raising student scores. Fourteen also use money to entice their worst schools to improve.
All 6,700 schools in California were ranked according to standardised test scores, and the results were publicised in newspapers and on the Internet. They were given a score ranging from 200 to 1,000 (the state target was 800), then ranked 1 to 10 according to their performance, 10 being the top 10 per cent of the schools statewide. In a parallel index, schools are ranked according to their standardised test results in comparison with other schools with similar demographics.
If the intent was to draw attention to the state of education, the California Academic Performance Index succeeded beyond expectation. So many people tried to read them that the state's department of education website had to be shut down temporarily.
Predictably, the highest-scoring schools were in affluent communities, including high-tech Silicon Valley. A Los Angeles Times analysis found that struggling schools shared three characteristics: a high percentage of poor students, many who were not fluent in English and unqualified teachers.