Instead of bribes, show kids that learning is the reward

January 28, 2008|By Linda Perlstein

It comes as no surprise that Baltimore's schools CEO, Andres Alonso, who has brought some good ideas and energy to the city schools, wants to pay high school students money - up to $110 a student, in total nearly $1 million a year - for improving their performance on state tests.

In an era where everything, and everyone, is judged on a single set of test results at the end of each year, cash for scores is an idea gathering steam around the country.

A pilot program announced last week will pay some Atlanta students to show up for tutoring. Students in several states are paid for passing Advanced Placement tests. And New York City - where Mr. Alonso used to work - introduced a plan this summer to pay kids as much as $500 for good attendance and scores. (The totals are adjusted by age: a 9-year-old gets $5 just for taking the test.)

It's also the next logical step in a bigger trend I've observed in the decade I have spent writing about schools. So many material incentives are now being offered that many schoolchildren don't make it through their day without layers of them. For example, during the year I spent at Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis researching a book, children received candy and potato chips for behaving, "scholar dollars" redeemable for trinkets for participating in class discussions, and dollar coins for finishing homework. Some school systems raffle off free cars and rents for perfect attendance. Even the grown-ups are bribed: cash for attending parent-teacher conferences and grocery gift certificates just for getting their children to school.

It's crass; it's gross; it's wrong. What's more, it doesn't work.

Sure, for some kids it works in the short term. The promise of junk food is enough to get certain third-graders to sit still until the end of math. The sad thing is, for many of these kids, the prize seems to be all they're working for.

"What do we win?" I heard a Tyler Heights third-grader ask his teacher, when she introduced a game to familiarize her students with their new pocket dictionaries. "You win getting smarter," she said.

But getting smarter was not something this boy saw as a prize in itself; he was hoping for a Popsicle, he later told me. Once the bribe is taken away, too often no inherent desire to learn and do well takes its place. This is what decades of academic research shows: Extrinsic motivators, as these rewards are called, are poor substitutes for intrinsic motivators, which last throughout a child's schooling, or his life. This is the kind of stuff schools really need to be focusing on.

Particularly for our neediest children, schools are not helping students make the connections that get them truly invested in school. Students are failing because they are not shown that what they are learning means something outside the schoolhouse walls. They are not provided an engaging curriculum, one that reaches beyond what's on the High School Assessments and allows them to think for themselves - that adapts to their strengths and deficiencies.

Many students don't get enough of a glimpse of the opportunities available to them if they show up and work hard. Too often, they have parents or guardians who, for whatever reason, are not managing to instill these messages every day. They live in a society that has failed to prove to them that caring pays more than not caring.

None of that can be had for a hundred bucks a kid.

Linda Perlstein, a Baltimore resident, is a former Washington Post education writer and the author of "Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade." Her e-mail is lindaperlstein@hotmail.com.

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