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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?

Kris October 10, 2011 at 06:23 PM
Novato High ignores the fact that many of the students that they are trying to encourage to improve their grades and test scores do not have the financial ability to pay for the Wi-Fi or service on an iPad or IPhone. Mr. Mayoral should focus on activity days like College Friday style events or ask a local restaurant, movie theater, activity center to offer discounts or gift certificates. He needs to leave his office and actually get to know these students.
Claire October 10, 2011 at 06:46 PM
It has been confirmed that the i-pads and i-pods for Novato High's students were paid by the Site Council, which obtains their funding from the State of California, i.e. YOUR tax money. How do you feel about your tax dollar being spent in this way? It has further been confirmed that many high school kids do not take STAR testing seriously. Instead of reading the questions and attempting to answer the questions, they make a game out of marking the bubbles on the multiple choice sheet in a fashion that will spell out their name or some other word or pattern. Even some high achieving students play this game. Now, should any of these students be rewarded with tangible, expensive items as an incentive for their 'effort' to mark the correct answers? What is going to be next? Are we going to have to pay kids a salary to kindly attend school?? If that is the case, we have major problems! The mere fact that other schools go this route certainly does not justify the route Novato High went! And - apparently it didn't work - Novato High's API went down instead of up - they did not achieve their goal of improvement. Could that mean that high achieving kids thought why should they do a good job if they won't be rewarded so they too just slacked or perhaps they purposely achieved low so next year they do have an stab at an i-pad?? San Marin's idea of teachers sending letters to kids sounds like a fabulous idea - I would bet anything that will be much more effective!
Susan Wreden October 10, 2011 at 07:55 PM
I just hope that all of the kids who do well are rewarded, not just those who previously screwed around. I think the College Friday program is fabulous, all of the kids have the opportunity to participate.
Patty Maher October 10, 2011 at 09:14 PM
I’m not sure what it is about using the word “ethical” in the headline, but it leaves me feeling as if the schools, Novato High in particular, are being accused of wrong-doing. Whether I agree or not with the use of those types of incentive to motivate students, I don’t believe Rey and the others were unethical in taking the path they took.
Claire October 10, 2011 at 10:08 PM
The idea of these 'rewards' was brought before the PTSA who refused to fund these items. It was then brought before the Academic Booster, who also refused to finance these items through donations. The school wanted to go this route despite being turned down by the PTSA and Academic Booster (I wonder if the members of these organizations thought it was unethical also??) and decided to finance it through the Site Council using funds provided by the State, tax payer money. While the idea may have not sounded unethical per se, if one gives it just a touch more thought and explores the possible consequences of such 'incentives', such as high achieving kids slacking to get a stab at one of these items next year (high achievement does not equal financial ability to buy such items and not all high achieving children own these items) and other concerns. In fact, it doesn't seem to have worked out for NHS - at the contrary - their score (and therefore their state funding) went down. I hope this year they will chose a wiser route and spend our tax dollars in ways that benefit the learning process (how about some new lockers for a start?). A letter from a teacher to a kid might do a better job - a few carying words and a 44-cent stamp! The California Education Code specifies that a parent or student over 18 can opt out of STAR testing. Also, the school is not allowed to put STAR testing scores on the transcript unless specifically authorized by the parent or the student.
Patty Maher October 10, 2011 at 10:42 PM
I have given it a "touch more thought," and I still believe it is not unethical to provide the incentives. Would I have been advocating for providing those types of incentives? Nope. Will I be asking that those types of incentives not be used again? Yup. I have my first child at Novato High this year, and I’ve joined Academic Boosters to try to lift achievement for all the students there. A tutoring program for all students is just getting off its feet, funded by Academic Boosters (a part of PTSA), which I’m glad to see. (And for which I claim no responsibility in being a part of launching.) I do believe programs like the tutoring one can make a difference, one student at a time.
JT October 10, 2011 at 11:36 PM
Maria We have had this conversation at length. Motivating students is a good idea. There are many ideas out there on how best to do it and not everyone is going to agree. The implication in your comment about what people may or may not think is ethical is not helpful to what should be a productive conversation about how to build a great educational model for kids. It is my hope that we can keep this conversation going with the intent to move forward and not continue to bash on the efforts of well meaning people.
Edwin Drake October 10, 2011 at 11:51 PM
AS an observer: JT is what's wrong with Novato. Thin skinned, ready to point a finger, taking umbrage at an innocuous statement. Maria said nothing wrong, and if anyone did it was JT who immediately jumped into "Politically Correct" mode. Please explain to me, how do we discuss issues if we can't say we disagree with past decisions?
Patty Maher October 11, 2011 at 12:09 AM
JT is most decidedly not what's wrong with Novato. Nor is Claire nor Susan nor you nor me nor Rey. It seems like we all want to find what will work and what won't work given what we've been dealt financially and socially in our town and in our schools. I don't like quibbling, generally speaking, but there I go quibbling about the use of "ethical." And now outright arguing that JT is most definitely not what's wrong.
janna nikkola October 11, 2011 at 04:20 PM
Simple positive reinforcement is a great motivator and it doesn't cost anything. Students should not be bribed into doing something they should be doing anyway and which they should do for their own benefit. A list of the studens with the best grades in each subject alone will do as much to motivate students to achieve. Everyone likes to be known as The Best at something, so seeing one's name at the top of the list accomplishes that. Sales organizations in all major corporations do this and it would work in our schools as well. Where does the money come from anyway to pay the students or to award expensive prizes for good grades?
Claire October 11, 2011 at 04:22 PM
JT, I did not write the above article and I don't know why this issue was brought back from many months ago by the author of the article. What it does tell me is that people do think about the issue and obviously do have concerns, otherwise they wouldn't be talking about it. So far I yet have to hear one person agree with an incentive of a $500-$900 electronic device, not even Patti wants to go there. You can call it 'unethical' or any other word you want - nothing will make it right. It is quite different if Hill or San Jose offers $10 i-tune cards as incentives or a fun-filled day of activities for student. All that being said, after I spoke to you, I was hopeful we could move on. When this article was published, I couldn't help but comment on it again as I did a few months ago. It is not right for you to say I 'bash' the school when I am expressing my concerns and opinion (which I believe is divided by many people), but you imply I should be quiet and move on. Whoever wrote this article apparently didn't think the subject was exhausted. It seems as though NHS doesn't want to talk about it anymore or get any publicity for it - which I can understand very well! I am waiting to hear what the plan is for this year's STAR testing. Edwin - thanks for taking my comment the way it was meant to be.
Claire October 11, 2011 at 05:29 PM
Janna - well said - thank you! The money in the NHS instance came from the School Site Council, which is funded by State contributions to the school for discretionary spending, i.e. tax money. Some schools fund items like these with PTSA funds, i.e. money donated by parents (usually).
janna nikkola October 11, 2011 at 06:43 PM
While I was in sales for a major US corporation, they rewarded ("recognized") high achievement at monthly, quarterly and annual "Recognition Meetings" where high achievers were rewarded with plaques presented before their peers, with much applause. It was much like medals awarded for bravery by the military -- and both plaques for high achievement in sales and medals awarded in the military are highly prized, as is recognition for high achievement before one's peers -- such as awards being given at assemblies in school. I do not believe it's in students' best interests or our schools' best interest to attempt to bribe students to do well in school. Students who only do well for a material reward are generally not good students anyway. Has our society deterioriated to the point where our young people only work hard when they're "paid" to do so? When my daugher was in elementary school, she worked very hard to please me and to have her papers taped to the fridge and on the wall, so she knew how proud we were that she'd done her best -- and, as it happened, her best was very, very good. She excelled in elementary school, junior high and high school and at one of the UCs, and in business (where she is high compensated for doing well). While she was in school, I would have been just as proud if she'd ranked l0th or 20th in her class if she'd done her best.
Patty Maher October 11, 2011 at 07:28 PM
I think a huge motivator for performance, particularly at the high school level, is the privilege of going off campus at lunch. How about a student's GPA is taken into account, along with STAR test performance, in deciding each semester whether the upperclassmen are able to leave at lunch time? (I know the freshmen at Novato High are not allowed as of this year to leave at lunch; I don't know if that's the case at San Marin.) For the first semester of 2012-13, allow only sophomores, juniors and seniors with a 3.0 GPA AND a particular STAR test score to leave at lunch. In determining who leaves for second semester, the GPA for the first semester would be considered. Would there be exceptions, say, for marked improvement but not yet at the minimums? Sure, why not.
Brent Ainsworth (Editor) October 18, 2011 at 05:34 PM
Edwin, Please make your points without finger-pointing. Thanks.
Dexter Kaziff October 18, 2011 at 06:36 PM
Huh? Brent didn't write this article.
Susan Wreden October 19, 2011 at 12:27 AM
I don't think your original post had anything to do with the article, and slander should be edited. This isn't the National Enquirer.
Patty Maher October 19, 2011 at 01:44 AM
Has he been convicted of a crime? I ask because you call him a "criminal."
Susan Wreden December 05, 2011 at 03:20 PM
Once again Julia, I find your comments offensive. Perhaps you should start a blog, then you can be as nasty and self serving as you'd like.
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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