Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Baltimore Schools to Pay Students

Initially, I thought this story out of Baltimore to be the height of wasted money. I was not alone in my thinking that paying students to pass tests was a bad idea. Under the plan,
The school system plans to spend nearly $1 million dollars on the incentives. Students who have failed at least one exam under Maryland's High School Assessments will earn $25 for improving test performance by 5 percent. If they improve an additional 15 percent, they will get an additional $35. Another 20 percent improvement will earn an additional $50.

State school Superintendent Nancy Grasmick has approved the plan, with the provision that the school system closely track student results.

The incentives are only part of a broader $6 million plan to boost student performance on the tests. The plan includes the hiring of private companies for tutoring, after-school and Saturday classes, test preparation materials and teacher training. It will begin next month.
Viewed in isolation, I can see why Elena Silva would be opposed, since it would seem that the million dollars could be put to better use, including as Silva writes:
Better ways to engage students: make instruction more interesting and challenging, link the materials to their lives and experiences, help them understand why it matters. Not for $100 to pass a test, but the nearly 100 percent increase in earnings that college degrees will get them. Harder to do, yes, but that's what it takes if you want kids to care about school.
But hold on for a second. While what Silva proposes is a good idea and worthy of the effort, think like a kid for a while? Let's say you are a teenager in Baltimore and you are told you can improve your test scores and get $100 now or you can improve your test scores on the chance that you will get thousands more in 5 or 10 years. Hmmmmmmm!

I'll take, "What do I have to do to get the cash now, Alex, for $100." It is a no brainer what students are going to do. And it is likewise amazing that few students will actually do the cost benefit analysis of the work they have to do to increase their test scores versus the payoff at the end. Increasing test scores by forty percent is no easy feat, even for chronically underachieving students. The level of work they have to do in order to realize the $100 payout is tremendous, with a last effect beyond the $100 spent by the school system. Keep in mind also, that to be eligible for the program, the student has to have failed one of the four exit exams, so not every student will be eligible. A similar example is found here from a DC teacher:
She [teacher Dara Zeehandelaar] has a standing wager with her Advanced Topics students. She has a deck of cards. It costs a math problem, answered correctly, to play. If she defies the odds and deals a student a royal flush, he or she gets an automatic A.

"You're eventually going to get it," she says, "but I win because you will have done so many math problems before you get that royal flush that you will have earned your A."
The work level here must be on the same general plane, it will take far more work to earn the $100 and the benefit will be much longer lasting than what the student will spend the money on.

How many times have you heard a parent tell a child that going to school is their job? I have told my kindergarten student that. Thus, if we ask a student to treat school like a job, why is a pecuniary reward so anathema to people like Silva. In thousands of elementary and middle schools across the country, we "pay" students for good performance to good behavior with rewards like candy, prizes like fancy pencils, group treats like popsicle days and ways to earn "cash" to purchase things like an extra field trip or books, games, movies etc. Why is paying actual cash to high school students any different? A teenager has little use for middle and elementary school trinkets, but does have use for cash. From our perspective, that is those with lots of education and more than a few years of real world experience under their belts, education is important and relevant and contains value in an of itself, but it is the rare teenager who sees the intrinsic value in a good education. Yes, we need to update our cirriculum and we need to make it more relevant, but any method that motivates students should not be discarded simply because it offends our belief that education has intrinsic versus extrinsic value.

As we used to say, "Money talks, B***S*** walks." While students are laughing on the way to the bank/store/pizza place with their money, in the end society will be having the last laugh--cheaply.

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