This was written by Larry Ferlazzo, who teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He writes a popular blog for teachers and a weekly advice column for Education Week Teacher, as well as several books on education.

By Larry Ferlazzo

The Goethe poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” made into the classic Disney film “Fantasia,” tells the story of an apprentice who is tired of doing the hard work of constantly carrying water into the house. When the sorcerer is away, the apprentice decides to take the easy way out and use magic he doesn’t fully understand to make a broom fetch buckets of water. The spell works at first, but ends up making things far worse when he can’t make the broom stop and the house becomes flooded.

This use of “magical solutions” that end up making things worse is a hallmark of many school reform efforts — value-added measurement teacher evaluation, the parent trigger, and merit pay proposals are just a few that come to mind.

A Cincinnati high school’s recent pro gram to pay students to attend class and to follow school rules is another example. It’s the latest in a series of unfortunate efforts to use bribery to force students to learn.

Application of these kinds of incentives has been proven time and time again to produce the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice Effect.” Listen to Professor Edward Deci, widely considered the most respected researcher in the field of motivation:

“It is easy to get people to do things by paying them if you’ve got enough money and they’ve got the necessary skills,” he said. “But they will keep doing it only as long as you keep paying them. And even if they were doing it before, when you stop paying them the behavior drops to a lower level than when you started paying them. We’ve done thousands of experiments on this over 40 years and the data is incredibly robust.”

“There is no evidence that paying people helps them learn — and a lot of evidence that it doesn’t,” Deci said.

Then why resort to paying students?

“Because it’s easy,” Deci said. “It’s much harder to work with people to get them motivated from the inside.”

As author Daniel Pink has described, extrinsic rewards might work in the short term for mechanical tasks that don’t require much higher-order thinking. But prizes and money don’t produce true motivation for any work that requires higher-order thinking skills and creativity. The kind of “if ... then” program being conjured up in Cincinnati just tends to make people feel like mice in a maze.

Even the largest student bribery experiment of its kind — the project conducted by Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr., which paid $6.3 million in cash to 18,000 children in New York, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Dallas — found these critiques to be true. In the one place (Dallas) where the study found what it considered significant academic gains due to the bribes (in reading comprehension, by paying second graders to read books through the decidedly lower-order-thinking Accelerated Reader program), those gains were reduced by half one year later and not considered significant. (Thanks to Stephen Krashen for his insightful analysis of this study).

Pink also points out that everyone needs “baseline rewards.” These are the basics of adequate “compensation.” At school, baseline rewards might include students expecting fair grading, a caring teacher who works to provide engaging lessons, a clean classroom. If the baseline needs are not met, then the person’s “focus will be on the unfairness of her situation and the anxiety of her circumstance....You’ll get neither the predictability of extrinsic motivation nor the weirdness of intrinsic motivation. You’ll get very little motivation at all.”

To really motivate students, we need to emphasize the hard work of supporting and expanding these kinds of baseline rewards, not resort to doomed bribery schemes.

When I see studies like Fryer’s, I wonder what kinds of academic gains would be realized if, instead of spending $166 per student on cash payouts, those funds were provided to teachers and schools to do more of what my colleagues often spend their own time and money doing (and what our administrators work overtime trying to squeeze school funds to pay for). Like:

* Having reluctant readers choose books of their own which we then purchase for them.

* Buying multiple copies of books students want to use in a student-led independent discussion group.

* Supplying all classrooms with a collection of high-interest books.

* Having a well-stocked school library and flexible librarian.

* Training teachers in effective, engaging literacy strategies, including free voluntary reading.

* Having counselors spend enormous amounts of time tracking down ways students can get needed eyeglasses, medical check-ups, and dental work done.

* Providing computers and home internet access to immigrant families to use for language development.

* Going on field trips to neighborhood libraries and other enriching destinations.

None of these kinds of efforts come with the baggage of extrinsic motivation programs.

The word “incentives” comes from incendere, which means “to kindle.” The dictionary says that “to kindle” means “to start a fire burning.” We need to imagine that it is the student, not the teacher, who starts that fire.

It’s time to back away from carrots and sticks, from bribes and intimidation. We should not tell our students that they will die from the cold if they do not start a fire when we tell them and in the precise manner we prescribe. Nor do we need to promise extra marshmallows to toast if they do just what we tell them.

Instead, these should be our goals: Find out why and where they want to build their fire. Help them learn how to use matches or a flint. And give them advice on the best places to gather some dry wood.


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