Part of my EdD work involves student motivation, so I am always keen to see what the media at large is reporting in this area. Seems like over the last year, there have been a few articles describing incentive programs for grades. I am immediately distrustful of such programs. I don't think we can foster of a love of learning in students by substituting a love of "stuff," such as money or stickers. I also think that these programs either confuse or overgeneralize what we know about positive reinforcement. We can change the behaviors of all kinds of animals (including ourselves) through the use of rewards. If you need a kid to remember to raise his hand before asking a question or follow the rules for lining up at lunch, a rewards system will do that. These kinds of behaviors work really well within a rewards system. And while you can argue that learning of all sorts has a behavioral basis, critical thinking and analysis don't really fall into the simple "peck the dot and get a peanut" category. This is where I think rewards systems for student learning fall down.
The New York Times recently put Rewards for Students Under a Microscope. They note several studies that show that rewards based systems only result in short-term gains...not long term or permanent changes in students.
However, in today's testing and dropout accountability environment, I'm wondering how many schools won't see a downside in the lack of long-term change. If I just need to show some impact for the current year, what do I care if kids lose interest in a few weeks? Maybe I just get them pumped up for the testing...or stay in school long enough to not count as a dropout...and that's all I need. Because under NCLB, I'm trying to get rewards and avoid punishment, too, only at a much larger scale. I don't necessarily have to learn as a system, I just have to jump the hoops. Perhaps that's all I need kids to do, too. Does it matter than we don't really get anything from the experience?
I think it does matter, but this is a systemic issue. NCLB has its heart in the right place in terms of student equity, but its bludgeoning of "underperforming" schools is just plain wrong. In some ways, it has made it okay for schools to treat their students in the same manner. Can we hope to make learning its own reward for kids when we value trinkets?