Like Wall Street Bonuses but for Doing Well

(By Julie Zhu)
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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

Regarding the D.C. schools' experiment in paying students for good grades, over my 34 years of teaching high school English, I gladly and willingly spent approximately $300 a year on "rewards, treats and trinket incentives" to enhance my instruction. The treats were nothing of major value: a gift coupon from 7-Eleven for a Slurpee, a pen embossed with "My Teacher Thinks I'm a Very Special Person," or a candy bar and blue ribbons that proclaim "First Place."

I awarded those small tangible rewards for unexpected progress, outstanding completed assignments, participation from an exceptionally shy teen and the personal sharing in a composition of a memorable moment in a student's life. Those small rewards added potency to my verbal praise and a little recognition.

My giving of those small prizes enhanced the cooperative atmosphere of learning, sharing and doing well in class, especially for students who did not usually succeed in school or are from impoverished homes.

Thus, I was shocked when my school's assistant principal called me in to complain that I "bribed" my students and claimed there was a plethora of research and literature that condemned this practice.

I discovered just how widespread the reward system is and how people in business, sports, entertainment and government had been using it so effectively. U.S. students devote much less time and energy to learning than students in other industrialized societies. High school teachers say lack of student interest and lack of parental interest are the two most important problems in education. When students lack such motivation, teachers give extrinsic rewards, if only for short-term goals and to encourage performance at a lower cognitive level.

I asked my students about the practice. Their anonymous comments were overwhelmingly positive:

"I think it's worth doing because the person who does the work needs a reward for doing a good job. It's done all the time outside school. My dad gets bonuses for bringing in more business."

"It gives us more incentive, and it's fun idea because I know if I do well, I'll get something afterward."

I was never convinced that giving little trinkets, treats and rewards was immoral, unconstitutional or educationally unhealthy, but money is another issue. When I retired, I donated my numerous teacher magnets and mugs -- trinkets I had received over the years -- to a nearby elementary school to be placed in teacher's mailboxes the first day of class. I knew they really needed a little reward or treat after their first day on the job, and I'll bet none considered it a bribe!

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