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Incentivising Education

2008
It was our weekly English department meeting. The morale in our school was not so great so the principal attended our meeting and began with a talk about teamwork.
A few days prior to this my journalism class was discussing what to include in the next issue of the school newspaper.
“How about we talk about the Science bribes?” our editor-in-chief said.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
She proceeded to tell me that students were brought to the auditorium during their Science classes and were given basically a pyramid of prizes for doing their best on the state Science test. This was the year the Florida Science Tests were going to count towards our school grade, but had no consequence for the students. What would be their motivation to do well?
The students showed me a copy of the Science prizes. If you scored 10% over last year’s score you would receive free prom tickets, 20% over a free yearbook and prom tickets, etc…
I was the yearbook sponsor and was never told about this.
So, during the department meeting, after the inspiring speech about teamwork when the principal asked if we had any thoughts I asked the department if they knew about the prizes for the Science tests. They did not.
Here we (and the Math department) had been responsible for the school grade almost entirely at this point, responsible for getting the bonus money that was distributed to all teachers and employees. Now, Science was instituting an incentive package for our students.
“Well,” our principal said, “this is what the Science department came up with. If the English department wants to create something similar I am all ears.”
Immediately, and much to my dismay, colleagues started talking about what we could offer to raise their motivation—extra credit, semester exam grades, special parties.
“No, no, no. We’re missing the point here. Do we really want to give I-pods to students who score the best?”
“Ooooh..I-pods, write that down.”
The bell rang and it was time to go to class, but soon after the emails started—“we could offer…., or we could give…”
I was beyond disheartened.

And this problem had not gone away. It has only gotten worse.
In my opinion, this is why these incentives are wrong…
1. In MANY standardized tests, the tests are poorly designed or scored. In other words we don’t believe for the most part that they measure real learning. See my report on the FCAT Writing scores and you will know this is true. I worked at a school that gave pizza parties to kids who scored a 6 on their writing. Two of those 14 papers were almost incomprehensible. But guess what? We didn’t see those papers until October of the following year, long after those two students enjoyed the incentives and worse—mistakenly considered themselves accomplished.
2. Our incentives are targeted primarily for improving on standardized tests. Why don’t we offer incentives for every achievement in the classroom? Why? Because the high stake tests affects school grades which affect US. And because we would never be able to afford incentives for everything they do in class. So even though we most often BELIEVE and REINFORCE to our students that these tests are only ONE measurement of their ability, and we tout in public how much we disapprove of these tests, we put huge emphasis on it. We are making it high stakes, too. It’s a bit hypocritical.
Instead of putting our efforts toward screaming about the tests –for instance a Science test that counts against us but has no bearing on a student so why would they care about taking it—we teach them how to play the game. Their scores come in great so what’s the problem some will say. Meanwhile, other schools don’t offer these incentives, kids don’t take the test or don’t take it seriously and we see that school’s low scores and shake our heads disapprovingly.
3. What are we teaching our kids? The most common argument I hear—even from my Area Superintendent at the time—is that this is the way our world works now. “In the real world employees are given incentives to reach a goal; this is not much different.”
But it is.
First of all, this quote was told to me in 2008 before we dipped into major recession. Do you think jobs today are offering incredible incentives? Having a job is the incentive. Just like in school, having an education to get a job, should be the incentive.
Ask teachers if they think students today feel more “entitled” than ever before and I think you will find they would most likely say yes. Do we have any shared blame in that? Even extra credit (for another post another day) is abused for this purpose.
Education’s goal is to make the world a BETTER place. We are here to help our students prepare for that outside world. Do we really believe that every task they face that will be difficult will come with extrinsic incentives?
Or do we want to instill in our students that education is the reward? For teachers, this is a much harder goal to reach, but when kids believe it, isn’t that the intrinsic value we find most rewarding?

Would love to know what you think. I feel I am in the minority here.

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