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Behavioral psychologists and economists have considered incentives to be a normal part of human nature for decades, if not centuries, but applying them to education still stokes controversy. For example, some people recoil at the idea of paying kids and their teachers for high scores on Advanced Placement tests that get students college credit in high school, as some schools in Northern Virginia are doing,
It sounds so … mercenary. Exchanging money for good performance? Handing out filthy lucre to reward a personally fulfilling and enriching achievement? Why, it almost sounds like the Grammys, or the World Series, or even a job. Nobody except the most Puritan-minded thinks any of these occupations or rewards is anything but a celebration of excellence, or at the very least a job well done. Adults can accept money as a reward for high performance. There’s no reason children cannot do the same—except prejudice.
For several generations now, Americans in general have underestimated their children. Laws mostly bar children from taking even a small-time job until age 16. Kids can hardly ride their own bikes down to the park or corner store any more.
These low expectations are endemic in education, research confirms. It starts with the teachers. University of Missouri economist Cory Koedel has found education students get the highest grades but the easiest work of all college majors. A 2013 study by the Thomas B. Fordham institute found teachers typically assign books at their students’ reading level, not their grade level. This means teachers frequently assign too-easy books, a problem that compounds as children move up grades. If fourth-grader Suzy gets third-grade rather than fourth-grade books to read, and so on up through the grades, she is likely to remain behind in reading for the rest of her life.
Washington, DC mother Mary Riner became disgusted with the low expectations at her daughter’s supposedly well-performing grade school. Fifth-grade Latin homework, for example, didn’t involve memorizing vocabulary or practicing verb tenses, but coloring Latin words. Yes, coloring—with a crayon. Riner responded by helping start a truly demanding school, called BASIS DC.
Low expectations don’t occur in a vacuum—they result from a set of expectations in our society, and they reinforce and verify those expectations as a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. A smart use of incentives offers one way to address this problem.
In their new book Rewards: How to Use Rewards to Help Children Learn—and Why Teachers Don’t Use Them Well, authors Herbert Walberg and Joseph Bast illustrate how positive reinforcement can help lift expectations and thus raise student performance. They discuss how the attitudes of many in the education establishment are a barrier to putting to work the science that shows kids respond to incentives just like adults. They also explain that rewards are about far more than money—good teachers use simple rewards, such as stickers or praise, to help instill in children the longer-lasting internal rewards of satisfaction in learning and pride in a job well done.
Perhaps the biggest shocker may be the realization that incentives will always be embedded in education, regardless of whether people acknowledge their existence. If teachers reinforce learning with encouragement, recognition, and grades, that’s an incentive. If teachers give students too-easy work because they expect every real academic challenge to raise complaints, that creates a very different set of incentives for both teachers and students.
Incentives will always exist in education. The question is, will educators harness this power for the students’ good?
Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.