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Schools Want to Motivate Students, but What's the Ethical Way to Do It?

Should Novato schools join the national trend toward electronic and financial rewards for high performance?

After sparked a minor controversey earlier this year by giving out iPads and iPhones in exchange for higher standardized test scores, feedback showed that local schools are walking a fine line when it comes to motivating their students.

Novato High's raffling of electronic devices came at a time when schools around the country were moving in the same direction, including:

* A high school near Boston offering seniors a $1,200 laptop for good attendance and getting into college or the military.

* The Baltimore school system paying $110 to each high school student who improved their scores on the state graduation exams.

* Suburban Atlanta schools paying students $8 an hour for a 15-week "Learn & Earn" after-school study program.

* Dozens of Los Angeles high schools offering a boost in classroom grades for students who scored high on California standardized tests.

Last year, Novato High Principal Rey Mayoral defended the idea of giving attractive incentives to students who are too old to be excited about attendance pencils or charms. 

“We are not doing anything different than many, many other schools across the state are also doing,” he said.

But Novato High parent Maria Rohner Storniolo . She wondered who would pay for the electronic gadgets and questioned the fairness of offering them to only low-performing students who improved their STAR test scores by 100 points or more.

“While I commend the school for wanting to reward students for extraordinary improvement,” Rohner Storniolo wrote, “it seems unfair to only extend these potential rewards to students who previously underachieved.”

Now, the school is deciding whether to go the way of Apple this year or try a different approach.

“Incentives work well,” Mayoral said. “It’s always good to recognize people for a good effort. And this is a national trend schools ... Whether it’s scholarships, whether it’s prizes, whether it’s some kind of treat.”

“I think it’s fine, as long as people understand why we’re doing it,” he added, not as a bribe but “to raise the level of awareness of doing well on the exams.”

He’s even considering paying for the AP or SAT exams of students who score well on state standardized tests. 

At , administrators have taken a different approach. They’ve tapped into preteens’ inherent need to fit in and be social. Once a month, they hold College Fridays. These are carnival-like events held during the school day where students with good attendance and positive behavior can skip class and have some fun.

In September, they had a teacher dunk tank, jumpy houses, slides and snow cones. 

“They have to earn it, so it’s something more immediate,” said San Jose Principal Chona Killeen, “and it’s with their behavior, and it’s not based on test scores and it’s not based on GPA.” 

Still, Killeen said there’s nothing wrong with giving rewards such as iPods or other electronic devices to get students’ attention. When she was principal at , they gave out Best Buy gift certificates and iTunes cards.

“I think we have to celebrate achievement, all the time, as much as we can,” Killeen said. “Whatever’s going to motivate the kids to want to be excited by school, and want to learn ... I think you do it.”

At , first-year Principal Adam Littlefield said he made an unusual request at a recent staff meeting: He asked teachers to write personal notes of encouragement to students who are struggling. 

“When a kid knows that a teacher or staff member cares about them, there’s a relationship that forms there. You never know where that could lead,” he said.

Beyond that, he’s given certificates and held ceremonies to honor hard workers.

“I wouldn’t say that kids are gonna get an iPod or a car based on what they do,” he said. 

Still, the PTSA allots money “that would allow me to provide some incentives for students who score well on tests.” The big question is, how to spend it.

How do you feel about this?

Susan Wreden December 07, 2011 at 06:32 PM
Please keep your posts to the article topic. "Schools Want to Motivate Students, but What's the Ethical Way to Do It?" I realize you have issues, and as I said before - you need to start a blog. The Patch should not be used as your own personal whipping post, and I wish they would block all posts that have NOTHING to do with the article.
Reina April 21, 2012 at 11:16 AM
I'm against with schools giving the students extravagant incentives just for them to perfect their attendance etc. I know it's good to recognize the efforts of students, but laptops and other gadgets are too much, don't you think? Just like in disciplining a child, there should be a limit to the carrot and stick approach. There are several well-written articles on http://wannareadyou.com/ that might help teachers deal with this problem.

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