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Stooping to bribery to get kids to read?

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I heard just a minute or two of an interview with Minnesota's 31-year-old teacher of the year. Not long enough to catch his name, where he teaches, what he teaches or much else, but long enough to know he loves kids and his heart and imagination are right there in the classroom.

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Would you agree to read 100 books in return for a gun of your own? That's the deal we made with our son Buckwheat when he was in the 6th grade. The small print required that each book had to be over 100 pages long and he had to successfully complete gun training. We just knew that once he really discovered the joys of reading he would never stop. And was he motivated! In the evenings he'd look at the clock and say, "I've got to get upstairs and get at my book." And up he'd go. There never was a weekend when he didn't have a couple of books checked out for some serious reading.

But when he got to 100 in what seemed like record time, he stopped in his tracks -- never got to 101 in the 6th grade. That was a huge disappointment to mom and pop, but he'd kept his end of the bargain and we kept ours. He's a reader now (and a hunter) but I have no idea whether our bribery had anything to do with it.

All the experts are concerned that our children aren't learning as much in school as they should. They're not testing well in math and science and they're not ranking well with students elsewhere around the world. We keep trying to come up with new ideas for improving our results, from No Child Left Behind to the Department of Education's Race to the Top, but we still have a long way to go.

In recent experiments in 143 schools in Chicago, Dallas, Washington and New York, Roland Fryer, Jr. has been conducting studies in student motivation and performance. With mostly private money, 18,000 kids have been "bribed" with $6.3 million to improve their performance as students. In each group, one half of the students were given cash incentives based on various factors such as attendance, behavior, grades, books read (yes, we pioneered that idea in our home), etc., and the other half received nothing. Results were compared later. In one school, the payments were $50 for an A, $35 for a B and $20 for a C. Half the earnings were set aside in an account to be redeemed only upon high school graduation.

The study is still going on, so conclusions are only beginning to be drawn, but while bribery doesn't always work, it has generally been productive. It was found that paying for the number of books read and successfully completing computerized tests about them generally produced higher grades than paying directly for higher grades themselves. Also, it was found to be more effective to pay kids every week because rapid feedback is more effective than delayed rewards. The kids, of course, were thrilled with the rewards and said it made them work their hardest. Parents tuned in more too, using the paychecks as progress reports. It is not known whether cash incentives will reduce dropout rates, but they have generally improved test scores for less money than other programs.

Bribing students to do their best is a controversial idea that will probably never catch on. After all, they should try harder simply for the love of learning as the best students undoubtedly do. But changes in education are going to happen, including more pay incentives (bribes?) for good teachers. Teachers worry about the politics of incentive pay and about teaching purely for test results, which really isn't the best way to teach. Whatever program we come up with will be better if it's designed by educators rather than politicians.

What we all know is that the greatest learning takes place when dedicated, motivated teachers with love and heart teach dedicated and motivated students with strong support from home. But America is a big country with many different homes, different cultures, different economic situations and different attitudes. There isn't enough dedication and motivation to go around. How do good teaching and good learning take place when the conditions are less than ideal? If you come up with a solution to that question that works, you can write your own contract.

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