Board divided over pay plan

The Baltimore Sun

A plan to pay Baltimore high school students to improve test scores has caused a split on the school board and drawn the sharpest criticism that Andres Alonso has faced in his first half-year as city schools chief.

Mayor Sheila Dixon came out in opposition to the plan yesterday morning, only to change her mind in the afternoon after speaking by phone with Alonso.

Alonso said he expected to take heat for his decision to spend nearly $1 million to pay struggling students up to $110 each for improving their performance on the state graduation exams. Yesterday he did, fielding a swarm of calls and media inquiries and trying to win over school board members.

The schools chief executive officer said he needs to think "outside the box" to motivate students and reverse the city's tide of low graduation rates and dismal test scores. Also, he said, the system has a "moral obligation" to the 5,000-plus students eligible for incentives, those in the classes of 2009 and 2010 who have failed at least one of the four High School Assessments they need to pass to graduate.

Under Alonso's plan, which includes $6.3 million overall to boost performance on the exams, high-performing students can earn money as well from a $700,000 pot designated for peer tutoring. Students who cannot pass the exams can do a senior project, and principals say that makes it hard to keep them motivated for the tests.

Alonso said the plan reflects the reality that many inner-city students drop out of school because they need to work, and many more can't stay after school for extra tutoring because they have part-time jobs. The bulk of the $6.3 million will be spent on extra academic instruction for students after school and on Saturdays, and Alonso said he hopes the money incentive will motivate students to attend those sessions.

He made no secret that he had proposed spending more of the $6.3 million on the financial incentives and peer tutoring, but state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick would not allow it, saying she needed to see evidence that the strategy will work.

Grasmick had to approve how the $6.3 million will be spent because the money was earmarked for the settlement of a dispute over a federal audit. The city school board, however, does not need to sign off on the plan, and board members are divided over the merits of the incentives.

Administrators included little detail about the incentives in a presentation about the overall plan at Tuesday night's school board meeting. In public discussion, some board members were focused on other aspects of the plan, making it unclear whether they didn't know about the incentives or were choosing not to discuss them. But in interviews yesterday, two board members expressed concerns.

"I haven't seen anything that indicates it's effective," said board member James W. Campbell, who publicly asked school system staff for more information. "My gut reaction is, it's not a good idea. ... It's got quite a price tag. ... I just think the money could be better spent somewhere else."

Board member Robert Heck said the idea of paying students for improving their test scores "makes me wince." Still, Heck said, he is conflicted because of his respect for Alonso: "He doesn't make decisions lightly, and he is really trying to get this system moving."

Alonso has strong support from the board chairman, Brian D. Morris, who said the system is prepared to do anything necessary to get students to graduate and must try nonconventional approaches.

Moving forward, education observers say, Alonso will need board members to trust him as he makes decisions based on what he believes is best for Baltimore students, regardless of whether research exists to back it. Because urban school systems around the nation have failed their students in such stunning numbers, Alonso has insisted that he must have room for experimentation.

There is little research on the effectiveness of combined middle/high schools, but Alonso intends to create 24 of them because of Baltimore's specific problem that many middle school students are over-age.

The system will survey students and closely monitor their progress to gauge the incentives' effectiveness. In New York City, where Alonso was deputy chancellor before coming to Baltimore, 60 schools are running a pilot program to give financial incentives to fourth- and seventh-graders; officials there expect that a preliminary study will be ready by this summer.

The New York program was designed by Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer. Fryer said in an interview yesterday that financial incentives make school "tangible" for inner-city students, who often don't see a point to trying hard. "In many of our more successful neighborhoods, we take our kids to dinner when they do well," he said. "We buy them shiny red cars at graduation."

Fryer said he's often confronted with the criticism that student financial incentives are equivalent to bribes. "I say, 'That's an interesting philosophical idea,'" he said. "We are beyond philosophy. This problem is so deep, so important and so tragic at this point. I mean, look at our graduation rates. In our best cities, for African-Americans, we're celebrating 50 percent graduation rates."

Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for Dixon, said the mayor felt better about the financial incentives after learning details from Alonso. For example, the mayor had worried that students would intentionally fail exams so they could get money for improvement. But for now at least, money is available only to students who have already failed.

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