February 8, 2014

LITTLE DID a Montgomery County principal think that rewarding top-performing students with pizza and a school dance would cause big controversy. But news of the middle school event has sparked a raging debate about everything from adolescent self-esteem to American competitiveness to political correctness.

Some of the rhetoric is overblown and many judgments overly harsh, but there’s nothing wrong with a discussion on how best to motivate students or build school communities. The letters on this page give some indication of how deeply people feel about these issues.

Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring last week held a dance during the final period of the school day for straight-A students, who were treated to pizza and a DJ. Students with B’s and C’s were allowed to join in when classes were over (by which time the pizza was gone); students with lower grades were not invited at all.

A report of the planned event by The Post’s Donna St. George struck a chord. Some people recalled painful moments of exclusion during their middle school years. Others said children should be rewarded for doing well. Some experts argue that extrinsic rewards are not the most effective motivators; relationships with teachers, peers and mentors are what really work, they say. Our view is that it’s good to celebrate academic achievement, just as trophies and letters reward athletic accomplishment, but that maybe a school dance — generally intended to foster social inclusion — wasn’t the best way to do that.

We also believe, though, that the Eastern principal has a better idea of what will work in her school than we do. Whether this particular event was the ideal approach, principals must have some leeway to decide what’s best for their students and try new things. Good for Montgomery County for giving that discretion to educators whose job it is to know their school communities.