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City's plan might work

The Baltimore Sun

It is frustrating that Baltimore schools CEO Andres Alonso is receiving so much criticism for a plan that gives students incentives for doing well on tests. The same people who think change is needed are afraid to try new methods. If we want something different for students, why not try something different? And what better to try than something that is mindful of students' concerns?

I believe that $1 million to provide incentives to students for improved performance is money well spent. Moreover, the $700,000 designated for peer tutoring receives less discussion but is at least as important.

Many critics of the plan suggest that students should not get paid to do what they're supposed to do. But in the "real world," people get paid to do their jobs whether they do them well or not. What's wrong with providing a small incentive to a student for a job well done?

As a student who had supportive parents, it still meant a lot to me when people who didn't know me showed interest in my achievements. It was encouraging. Now think about how much more it means for students who do not have that parental support. When the support manifests itself as something immediately tangible, it is all the more important.

Students have a lot besides tests on their minds - and for many, this includes such things as whether or not they'll have dinner when they get home, how to care for younger siblings, and whether the gas and electric bills have been paid. If they think they'll receive something financially that could help their situation, there's a push to do better - something to help focus on the test and preparation.

Tutoring peers is also crucial. When students can get paid to help other people learn, they might spend fewer hours flipping burgers. They can strengthen their skills while helping others pass a test. And it builds relationships among the students that will remain important long after the test.

In communities where children face so many challenges, what can be better than building foundations for relationships where students, soon to be adults and perhaps leaders in the community, are helping one another?

Although Mr. Alonso's plan provides an extrinsic motivation to do well, I know that it will bring out those intrinsic motivations students need to succeed. It's not that they do not want to do well on tests or will do well only if given money. But faced with more immediate problems, extra motivation helps them focus on a test.

From working with the Baltimore Algebra Project for five years, I have witnessed these changes in students who have worked as paid tutors to help other students do better in math. We have also recently allotted cash bonuses for tutors who help their peers pass the High School Assessments, as well as bonuses to the student who passed. This has been effective in helping students.

A strategy that helps create support for students who need more ways to remain focused does not send the wrong message. It says that someone is willing to take a radical step to address students' needs.

Michele Shropshire, a graduate of Polytechnic Institute, is a tutor with the Baltimore school system's Algebra Project. Her e-mail is mail2michele@gmail.com.

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