Pay for performance?

January 24, 2008

Like many of us, students may work harder when offered certain incentives. But is Baltimore schools CEO Andres Alonso's plan to give students up to $110 for improved scores on High School Assessment tests a sensible one? Mr. Alonso, who was hired in large part to do things differently, may deserve some creative leeway. He thinks the program could be revolutionary. But using public dollars for these rewards is an eyebrow-raiser. The Maryland State Department of Education has approved the plan, but has rightly required a rigorous evaluation. Mr. Alonso will owe the public a full accounting of whether it succeeds or fails.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of city high school students in the Class of 2009 face the dismal prospect of not graduating because they have failed at least one of the four tests they must pass in order to receive their diplomas. Mr. Alonso has come up with a mixed bag of traditional and nontraditional methods that are to be used in some low-performing schools to help students over the hump.

Many students will be given extra instruction in after-class or Saturday sessions. But in an effort to motivate both successful and struggling students, Mr. Alonso wants to spend about $715,000 to greatly expand tutoring by peers who have passed the tests and college students. He would also spend about $935,600 on cash rewards from $25 to $110 for students who improve their failed test performance by 5 percent to 20 percent. But why not target only those who pass the test?

Despite the more desirable alternative that such a rewards program be privately funded, Mr. Alonso and state education officials point out that the $6.3 million that will be used for the entire project comes from federal funds that might have been lost to the system because of irregularities found in a 2004 audit. They insist that spending the money on tutoring efforts for low-performing students from low-income families is still consistent with the federal program.

The only questionable part, then, may be those cash rewards. For students who are struggling academically and financially, will some extra spending money be a sufficient incentive to keep studying and not give up? Mr. Alonso will have to report the answer in detail.

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