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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Put Your Money Where Your Mind Is?

Sometimes, when students give less than their all, I offer a gentle reminder that, for all intents and purposes, studying is their job.  The people in students' lives--and society in general--expect nothing less than full participation in the business of their own education.  As seriously as doctors or policemen or firemen take their respective professions, so, too, should students think of their own particular vocation.

"Oh, yeah?" the more confrontational ones retort.  "If this is my job, then how come I don't get paid?"
It's a fair question.

Should students be given cash incentives for coursework?  A non-profit organization, the National Math and Science Initiatives, thinks so.  This program provides equipment, teacher-training, and tutoring to students preparing to take advanced placement exams.  It also gives $100 to any student who scores a '3' or better on the AP exam, as well as cash bonuses for the instructors based on how many of their students succeed.  Last year, the most successful instructor pocketed over $12,000 extra based on his students' success.

Some complain that this reward system crassly caters to the basest mercenary instincts, reducing or eliminating students' intrinisic motivation.  As if anyone is intrinsically motivated to study calculus!

The payments to the students are unobjectionable.  The students are not being paid to take the exams; they are being rewarded for doing well.  As long as all students who succeed receive the same reward, regardless of whether they score a perfect '5' or a passing '3,' no ethical lines are being crossed.  While $100 may seem like a large amount to a student (or even a blogger), it is still a largely symbolic amount, and ultimately of only slightly more monetary value than the standard reward for good work: An 'A' on a report card.

The teachers' rewards are more troubling.  Don't get me wrong: I'm all for teachers getting as much money as possible.  The concern becomes that teachers, knowing that they can get significant bonuses for successful students might cherry-pick the best students in the school for their classes--something that this national program discourages; indeed, one of the fundamental principles of this program is that any students can enroll in the classes.  Still, I can imagine a situation where a teacher with, say, 40 students might devote more time to the top half of the class, figuring to hedge his bets: Maximize the success among those "expected" to pass, rather than try to teach everybody something, even if this means taking time away from the strongest students.

Certainly, I want all my students to succeed.  And in all honesty I wouldn't protest too much if someone offered me a bonus for each student who passed some national exam.  But in the end, I don't think my results would be much different--for better or worse.  Teachers didn't go into teaching for the money.  No one should get the idea that financial incentives are going to change what teachers ultimately do.

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