Baltimore Is Paying High School Students to Study

Published April 1, 2008

The Baltimore school system has joined the ranks of districts experimenting with a controversial pay-based incentive plan to improve student test scores–but this time, it’s not for teachers.

In January, Maryland School Superintendent Nancy Grasmick approved a plan to pay Baltimore-area students up to $110 apiece for improving their scores on the state’s high school assessment exam. Depending on the results in Baltimore, the experiment could spread statewide.

Aimed at high school sophomores and juniors who failed the Maryland High School Assessment Exam at least once, the program is being regarded as a chance to get students more interested in making the grade. Some 5,000 students could take part in the program.

In a February 8 Education Week article, Andrés Alonso, chief executive officer of Baltimore’s school system, said, “The possible outcomes from … not graduating from high school are so great that I felt that putting a program in place that could rescue some of these students was a small risk to take.”

Potential to Backfire

Under the plan, students who have failed at least one exam will be paid $25 if they increase their score by 5 percent over their previous score. They will receive an additional $35 if their score increases another 15 percent on the second test, and an extra $50 bonus can be earned by raising their score another 20 percent on the third benchmark exam.

Though Grasmick signed off with the caveat that the program be closely monitored for student improvement, critics say this is the wrong approach to achieving lasting positive change.

“There is research in lab and school settings that concludes that incentives, or bribes, to increase test scores do not work,” explained Robert Schaeffer, public education director of The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a Massachusetts-based organization that works to promote quality education and testing. “The monetary incentive may produce short-term gains, but in the long term it is not effective and may be harmful.

“It’s like steroids,” Schaeffer continued. “They temporarily boost performance, but in the end, they undermine the capacity to do hard work. Programs like these set kids up to believe they’ll get paid for performance. And when they enter a class that doesn’t have a pay-for-performance bribe attached to it, they don’t care to perform. You have to either give ever-increasing doses of the drug, or money, or you end with a collapse of motivation.”

Performance as a Reward

School officials are not only banking on the idea that money will be enough of a motivator to get students to spend more time on their studies; they are also hoping it will help remove some of their distractions. Supporters of the program say the money could give lower-income students–who otherwise would have to work at jobs outside school–more time to study by allowing them to make money while focusing on schoolwork.

But experts say rewards, even monetary ones, are not as much a motivator for teens as one might believe.

“Up to the age of 10, things like rewards do work for kids as a motivator,” said Peter A. Spevak, Ph.D., director of the Washington, DC-based Center for Applied Motivation, which studies the subject. “But for young adults and [grown-ups], these types of motivators do not work. For [them], it’s more about motivating people to do and be their best. Pay is just an extra at the end of the day.

“If our society is based only on pay, that would be a bad thing,” Spevak continued. “People are not thinking about how this impacts children in the long run and how it will affect their view of the world as an adult citizen. What will happen to volunteerism, for instance?”

Choice Works Better

Another gripe critics have about Baltimore’s plan is that it uses taxpayer money. The state predicts it will spend $935,000 on these incentives, with the funds coming from a $6.3 million budget for increasing student test scores.

“We spend an enormous amount of tax dollars to give students a good education–and that’s not saying all public schools do a good job, because they don’t,” said Christopher Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a Rockville-based public policy and research organization. “But to say, ‘Hey, we will give you money if you do well’ is just asinine.

“We’ve already spent a lot of money on improving test scores and were promised these big improvements. And where are the results?” Summers asked. “If there is extra money available, we feel it should be put towards some sort of voucher program. That way, if students are not doing well in one school, maybe they can go to another school that better fits their needs.”

Advocates say the new plan does not neglect good students. The program includes funds to pay high-achieving students $10 an hour to tutor academically struggling peers.

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.

For more information …

“Promises of Money Meant to Heighten Student Motivation,” by Katie Ash, Education Week, February 8, 2008: