Money As an Incentive for Students

You might have read recently that some school districts are beginning to offer money as an INCENTIVE to students to increase school attendance. Since the incentive of money appeals to most people, this may appear to be a rational approach.

Let's start with a clarification regarding INCENTIVES, REWARDS, AND EMPLOYMENT.

An INCENTIVE, such as money, can be a MOTIVATOR.

Receiving money, which occurs AFTER the action, is the EXTERNAL REWARD.

It is important to remember, however, that the REWARD TEACHERS receive can be such things as satisfaction from the creativity of lessons and instruction, watching the young grow and mature, and relationships with students.

The TEACHER'S REWARD IS NOT MONEY—as many teachers assume, e.g., "I wouldn't be working if I were not being given a reward." No doubt, money is an INCENTIVE for wanting to be hired—but MONEY IS NOT THE REWARD for teaching. Once someone is employed, a SOCIAL CONTRACT has been created: SALARY/compensation IN EXCHANGE FOR SERVICE. A salary is not a bribe in the same sense that some teachers and parents use rewards to manipulate young people.

The ASSUMPTION that adding incentives always helps is false. There are circumstances in which adding an incentive competes with other motives and diminishes their impact. Psychologists have known this for more than 30 years.

In one example, nursery school children were given the opportunity to draw with special markers. After playing, some of the children were given "good player" awards. Later, the markers were reintroduced to the classroom, and researchers kept track of which children used them. The youngsters previously given awards were less likely to draw at all and drew worse pictures than those who were not given awards.

Why did this happen? Children draw because drawing is fun. The rewards for drawing are INTRINSIC TO THE ACTIVITY ITSELF.

The "good player" award is aimed at giving children another reason to draw: to earn a reward. Children want recognition. But the chance for RECOGNITION UNDERMINES THE FUN, so that later, in the absence of a chance to earn another award, the children are no longer interested in drawing. Simply stated, rewards change motivation.

The intrinsic rewards of learning aren't working for many young people today. It may be that the current state of achievement is low enough that it's worth trying anything. Or it may be that cash will get kids started, after which they can be weaned. But it's plausible that when students get paid to go to class and do well on tests, they will be even LESS INTERESTED IN THE WORK than they would be if no incentives were present. In addition, as with all rewards, they require an increase in order to retain motivation for them.

THE INCENTIVES MAY MAKE THE LEARNING PROBLEM WORSE IN THE LONG RUN—EVEN IF IT IMPROVES ACHIEVEMENT IN THE SHORT RUN. Perhaps worse, the plan will distract us from a more important question: What makes schools turn eager-to-learn primary students into older, unmotivated ones?

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