Grades and Economics

Should teachers use grades as incentives?

In school, several things are going on:

Teaching = preparing lessons, conveying information to students, assisting their acquisition of knowledge and skills.

Managing = taking attendance, keeping track of grades, writing kids up for various offenses.

Of the two, I want to say that the teaching is more important, but in reality, my immediate responsibility is to run a safe classroom, keep the kids out of the halls, keep them from fighting or doing other bad things.

There is a hidden side of school that idealistic reform rhetoric doesn’t acknowledge. School has become an economy of points. Students, like the rest of the world, work for rewards — in their case, grades. Teachers shape their behavior by using grades as an incentive. We justify this by telling ourselves that we’re only trying to get them to do what is really good for them. Does it matter how we achieve that?

Part of me says yes, it matters. Education should be about learning, not points. Kids should be curious about the world, themselves, other people, the past, the future.

Another part of me knows that the world doesn’t work that way. It hisses, “Accept reality – kids grub for points, not understanding. Use their greed for grades in ways that provide some benefit.”

In the real (i.e. adult) world, people don’t always do the things that would benefit them most in the long run – eating right, exercising, saving money, reading good books, eating organic food. The rewards for these activities are so distant or require so much effort that many people, though desiring them, don’t change their behavior to make them happen. The immediate reward – the brownie, the couch, the reality show, the video game – is right at hand and provides instant rewards.

Why should kids be any different? We expect kids to read and write and study for tests, telling them that the reward is a better future, a higher income. We use grades not to assess how much they have learned, but as incentives, immediate rewards, so that they will cooperate with our agenda.

At my school, first period is a huge problem. Many students arrive late. Some drive themselves; they don’t get out of bed early enough. Others take the bus, get to school on time, but hang out in the cafeteria or somewhere else for ten minutes or longer before going to class.

Why don’t they go to class? Plenty of teachers write kids up for tardiness – and other things: cutting class, using a phone or ipod in class. Do their behaviors change as a result of disciplinary measures?

Not much. A few kids respond for a while, but habits are stronger than the desire to avoid a potential punishment — one that may not even happen if the teacher is inattentive or too busy to write them up. Right now, they can play a game on their phone, respond to a text message, listen to a song, or take a nap. How can the promise of a better future stack up against that? “I want you to put away that phone and get to class on time because in some future you can’t yet imagine, you won’t be able to get away with that.”

What do we expect? It is more remarkable that there are so many kids who do the right thing, come to class, keep their phone stowed away, turn in their homework on time.

So how do we give immediate gratification to these tardy, disrespectful, apathetic students? Punishment has no effect; scolding is worse than saying nothing. College and career are too distant to matter.

The only thing left is grades.

Kids want good grades for a variety of reasons, many of them having to do with parents and permission to do something – use the car, keep the phone, go out with friends. Or perhaps their parent’s disapproval is more painful than my scolding.

Grades are also competitive. Kids equate them with self-worth. They don’t like seeing an F because they feel stupid. They like an A because they can show it off to friends and bask in their envy. They want to appear smart, even if the grade doesn’t reflect any real learning.

I think about incentives at this point in the grading period, halfway between interims and the end of first quarter. I have seen many of my students turn from cooperative, interested learners into demoralized, apathetic under-achievers — all because of a grade: S or U. Just wait until they see that D or F.

One thing is certain: I alone cannot change this culture of grades and rewards. (Sorry Alfie Kohn; I truly believe what you say, but I have to live in this trench.)

So I ask myself: How can I use this?

Kids will only put forth so much effort for a grade. Their effort must pay off or they will stop, give up. I must find that optimal spot where I am still challenging them, but they can feel successful and earn a grade that will get them the car for the weekend.

Here, three weeks out from first quarter grades, I am prepared to bargain with my low-achievers. They must put forth some effort, but I will make it worth their while.

I have never been happy with a grading scale that allows kids to become so buried in failure by the sixth week that they stop trying. That’s what a 60% pass means. It doesn’t mean that they know 60%; it means they have earned 60% of the points – however they achieved that. For students who have a 5% right now, the possibility of making it to 60% by October 28 seems remote. They are victims of the ‘zero’ effect – the accumulated consequence of not handing in assignments. Is it such a bad thing to give them an opportunity to win the lottery, strike it rich?

That’s what I’m thinking tonight. I don’t want to be the one slamming that door. Maybe I’m a bad teacher for not punishing their sloth and giving them what they have ‘earned.’ Maybe I should have done something differently three weeks ago.

But I don’t want kids sitting in my class, feeling hopeless. Punitive measures have not changed anything inside of them. They are still without hope, but defiant, determined not to sacrifice their dignity. Better to go down with a 5% because you refuse to buy what school is selling than to try but fail to reach some arbitrary magic number.

I will offer them hope, if only to keep my own sanity. It will require some effort on their part, but I will pass them if they keep trying. They’re not stupid; they’re just drawn by immediate rewards rather than distant ones.

Yes, I’m part of what is wrong with American education. I’m using points as a reward rather than instilling a love of learning in my students.

But I’m the one who has to live in this trench, and I don’t see the auxiliaries arriving any time soon.

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