Thursday, April 15, 2010

Student Motivation; The Missing Component in Today's Education Reforms

The cover story of this week's Time Magazine titled “Should Schools Bribe Kids?” describes recent research findings that demonstrate the effectiveness of financial rewards in raising student performance. The controversial study by Roland Fryer Jr, Professor of Economics of Harvard University, found that carefully designed financial rewards programs could significantly boost student scores on basic skills tests. The study found that when cash contributions were made to student's educational savings accounts based on performance of specific education tasks, along with school recognition of such students at frequent intervals, many of the previously low performing students made dramatic progress in academic courses and on state tests. It seems that until money was offered, such students had never been adequately motivated to succeed in school. Many “education purists” both within and outside the education establishment were appalled that such a crude tactic would be attempted even on an experimental basis. Supporters of the study have pointed out however, that most adults show up at work every day primarily because of the expectation of a paycheck. Also it was pointed out that the experimental study produced dramatic results at a much lower cost per student than most of the currently favored programs designed to close the achievement gap.

Some of my readers might ask, “Why are you arguing in favor of pay for performance for students when last week's post consisted of a rant against teacher performance pay?”

Fair question. First of all I'm not arguing that we should pay students cash for good grades. I'm just pointing out that this experiment demonstrates that our present programs for motivating a large percentage of Louisiana’s students are not working. Second, as I explained in last week's post, paying teachers for student performance would only work if teachers were the sole cause of success or failure of each student. As we see from this study, student motivation and his/her environment often have more to do with academic success than the dedicated efforts of his/her teachers.

One does not have to buy into this specific system of direct pay to students for good grades to come to the conclusion that our present methods for motivating students are not working. This experiment shows that many more students could succeed in school if they could be motivated to do so. Could it be that most of our school turnaround efforts both in Louisiana and at the national level do not effectively address the issue of student motivation? Why have we assumed in Louisiana that all students automatically want to make good grades, and score well on the LEAP and graduation tests? To put it bluntly, why do mostly white middle class adults who set all the course and testing requirements for public schools believe that many of our students who come from totally different environments will embrace these goals? Its very clear that fully 42% of public school students in Louisiana are not buying what we're selling! That's how many students leave our public schools each year without a diploma. Yet our education officials do not see the need to reconsider the structure of the curriculum we offer uniformly to all students. It seems our policy makers have forgotten that the primary customers of the educational system are the students, and that they all have different needs and aspirations.

I've carefully read every single word in the 45 page Duncan/Obama Blueprint for Reform: The re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and found almost no mention of the need to design a varied curriculum and set of tangible incentives that will properly motivate low performing students. There were news releases accompanying the "Blueprint" declaring that raising expectations of students and encouraging the adoption of uniform curriculum standards by states will somehow boost the graduation rate both at the high school and at the college level. This pronouncement is just one more example of the disconnect between education policy makers and many public school students. If large numbers of students are dropping out and failing in school with the present supposedly lax standards, why would anyone expect more rigorous academic standards to motivate these students to succeed? As I've said before, we've already tried the “raise the bar” scheme in Louisiana. Instead of jumping higher, many of our students have just stopped jumping altogether.

When I attended school many years ago, a varied school curriculum with much attention to student motivation was the norm. We had music teachers in elementary school, art, drama, and a truly comprehensive high school teaching both academics and CTE courses. I developed a lifelong interest in cabinetmaking because of the fine program offered in my high school. Later I was motivated to pursue science because of participation in an exciting science fair. When I became a new teacher in 1966, our schools received federal funding for state-of-the-art science labs and students were taught using an investigative/laboratory approach.

Now, little effort is spent by our education system identifying the unique talents and interests of our students. The system has determined what is important for all students to learn, and there is little opportunity for educational choices. Because of state and federal mandates, schools are mostly becoming places where students are rehearsed for Accountability testing.

A lot of kids today would be thrilled if public schools would focus on training them for modern careers so they could go out and earn a good living just like some of the successful adults they know. That's why the most effective program we have in Louisiana for motivating low performing students is the Jobs for America's Graduates (JAG) program. This week's Time Magazine article makes it clear that many of today's students are not buying the idea that making good grades in school and going on to college is in their future. These kids may be under-achievers, but they are not stupid! They know that only the top 25% of the class can ever hope to go to college assuming they can find the money to pay for it. The rest of the students would be very happy to receive a career focused education that provides them a much more realistic chance of success. Yet our State Department of Education has done everything possible to discourage the proper implementation of the Career Diploma program. Even an expanded JAG program will fail if there is no alternative to the "college prep for all" curriculum we have in this state.