By Peter Berger
I’ve often seen people do things for others, without apparent self-interest. Other times we act without thinking at all. Usually, though, when a task requires effort, I need a reason to do it, and that reason often involves what’s in it for me.
Students need reasons, too. Sometimes, as with parents, a teacher’s reasons come down to “because I say so.” Almost always, however, I explain the “why.”
I tell them, for example, that while grammar isn’t the most interesting topic, some of them will enjoy it because it’s systematic like math. I explain that grammar’s rigor is good training for their minds. I ask how many plan to learn a foreign language in high school. When most raise their hands, I tell them they’ll find it easier to deal with adjectives in Spanish if they first learn how they work in English.
My approach to motivation is similar at standardized testing time. I know that students commonly don’t care about standardized tests, and they know I don’t think the assessments we administer are the best indicators of their skill and knowledge. I concede that while their assessment score doesn’t change their grade or benefit them materially, the assessment itself does provide practice for tests they’ll take someday where the results will affect them directly. I also note that, owing to state sanctions for low scores, scoring higher will make life easier for all of us next year.
Simply put, I ask them to make the same effort they make on assignments I give them.
I don’t entice them with pizza parties or promise extra recess. I certainly don’t pay them in cash.
Some experts advocate providing tangible rewards. PBIS, an incentive-based discipline program, offers students prizes for behaving themselves, and sometimes for merely behaving less badly than usual. The adult equivalent would be paying criminals not to break the law. Some districts reward parents and students with cash and prizes simply for showing up in the morning, a practice comparable to paying patients for keeping doctor appointments.
A Bentley University economics professor investigated whether students would make a stronger effort on tests if they had a “personal stake in their score.” Students took two tests. On the first, they could earn ninety dollars if they scored well. On the second test, there was no reward, regardless of their scores.
While this study concluded that students “do much better on the test that is incentivized,” similar “experiments” have variously found “meaningful increases,” “very little impact,” “no effect,” and “small or even negative effects” tied to cash incentives. These varying results hardly certify the effectiveness of incentives, but they do raise questions about the accuracy and “appropriateness” of using non-incentivized standardized tests as measures of a “student’s academic progress.” It necessarily follows that the same tests aren’t a “reliable measure of a teacher’s quality,” a relevant consideration in districts where teachers are compensated and fired based on their students’ scores.
This should matter to people who don’t want their school to fire good teachers based on meaningless data. What troubles me far more, though, is something the professor discovered about American students compared to international students.
In 2012, students in Shanghai, China, ranked first on the PISA international mathematics assessment. American students placed thirty-sixth. Shanghai students did “not respond at all” to financial incentives, but when our students were offered cash, the “gap” between Shanghai and American scores was “greatly diminished,” presumably owing to the additional “effort” American students were then willing to make.
The good news is the results suggest that American students’ might not be as academically far behind their international peers as their non-incentivized PISA scores suggest.
The bad news is that while Shanghai students appear to “try hard on every test,” our “students do not” unless they think they have something “to gain personally.”
Too many American students don’t appear to regard being better educated as a personal gain, let alone a national asset. On the scale ninety bucks weighs more. Their math skills may be stronger than we thought, but the value they place on achievement itself is weaker.
Our national response to COVID vaccination raises similar concerns. While many Americans ignore medical practitioners’ nearly unanimous pro-vaccine recommendation and adhere instead to cultish political dogma and the lies broadcast by Republican politicians and media personalities, others among us are apparently willing to lay down our vaccine doubts, fears, hesitancy, and sloth as long as we’re properly incentivized. Those incentives include millions in lottery prizes, commuter rail passes, college scholarships, groceries, cruises, shotguns, Super Bowl tickets, and two laps around the Talladega Nascar track.
Never mind that the vaccine is free, or that it’s available everywhere from drugstores and railway stations to Fenway Park and the Museum of Natural History. Never mind that it protects your nation, your neighbors, and yourself.
If, on the other hand, it gets you a free doughnut, joint, or six-pack, then you’ll roll up your sleeve.
Prizes may get us higher math scores
And public health officials can declare vaccination incentives “absolutely appropriate.”
But what does it say about us if it takes a joint or a Krispy Kreme to induce us to save our own lives
Schools can work on math skills, and healthcare experts can promote vaccination, but each of us needs to confront this fatal flaw in our national character.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.