There are toys for perfect attendance, candies for good behavior and pizza parties for improved test scores. There are principals who agree to shave their heads and sleep on the roof, if only their charges will study harder.
In Maryland and around the nation, schools give students rewards all the time. And for the most part, the public doesn't complain.
Yet when Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso came out last week with plans to spend nearly $1 million to pay struggling students who improve their scores on tests measuring what they need to know for the state graduation exams, people were outraged. "Utterly ridiculous" and "disgusted" were common reactions in hundreds of messages sent to The Sun by readers around the country.
So what makes cash incentives different from nonmonetary awards?
Some say that small prizes can help socialize young children but are inappropriate beyond that. Some say incentives should be inexpensive so that money can be spent on more meaningful school reforms, such as class-size reduction. And some say doling out cash is just plain wrong.
On the other side of the debate, among supporters of financial rewards, two arguments prevail. One is that cash isn't any different from other prizes. The other is that it's more effective.
When Roland G. Fryer, a Harvard economist, began researching how New York City students respond to incentives, he started by offering small prizes and parties. As his work expanded, he found that cash was easier to administer, and the kids liked it better. So why not?
Alonso's incentive program - part of a $6.3 million initiative to help students pass the state High School Assessments - is conceptually similar to what Fryer is trying in New York, though specific details are different. Both programs strive to make school relevant to kids who don't see the point of trying.
The Baltimore incentive money is available to more than 5,000 students in the classes of 2009 and 2010 who have already failed at least one of the state exams, which measure mastery of fundamental concepts in algebra, English, biology and government. Those students can earn up to $110 for improvements on school system exams measuring what they need to know for the state tests.
Alonso hopes the lure of money will draw students to come for extra help at after-school and Saturday sessions, which will cost $3.1 million. Many city students must work after school and on weekends to make ends meet.
To a large extent, the controversy isn't about the fact that the school system is giving out money as much as it is about who's receiving the money and why. Many critics of Alonso's plan have said that students should be rewarded for doing well from the start, not after failing.
The school system is going to pay high-performing students: for tutoring their peers. But Alonso is adamant that the system must pull out all the stops to help those who have been allowed to make it to high school without basic skills.
"Society has found it acceptable for these kids to fail," he said. "Anything that we do in order to reach them, motivate them, make it possible for them to focus on school, anything, anything should be an open conversation.
"Somehow there is a moralistic approach about what they should be doing when in fact the conversation should be about the fact that we have found it acceptable for so many of these students to not graduate without real consequences for anyone other than the children we are supposed to be serving."
The trade-off, he said, is not that struggling students are being rewarded more than other children or for the wrong reasons. The trade-off is the cost to society when students fail.
Financial incentives are becoming a hallmark of anti-poverty efforts in New York, where Alonso was deputy chancellor of schools before coming to Baltimore in July. Fryer's initiative to pay fourth- and seventh-graders for good test scores is part of New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's Opportunity NYC program, which pays low-income adults for things such as attending parent-teacher conferences and holding down full-time jobs.
Last fall, a New York nonprofit began a program called Rewarding Achievement that will pay students in high-poverty high schools up to $1,000 for every Advanced Placement exam they pass. It is modeled after a program in Texas that has had notable success with that strategy.
Eddie Rodriguez, Rewarding Achievement's executive director, said his program didn't receive much criticism, likely because it's privately funded and it's rewarding students for showing they can do college-level work, which is a high bar.
In Dallas, 10 high-poverty high schools that began paying students for passing AP exams in 1996 saw the number of passing scores skyrocket from 29 in 1995 to 664 last year. The former director of the Texas program, Gregg Fleisher, is now administering a $125 million grant from ExxonMobil to replicate the strategy in seven other states, including Virginia.