An “A” for effort

The United States used to be world-renowned for its educational system. However, while our universities and colleges still fare pretty well, our K-12 educational system has fallen dramatically – so far that some argue it is hurting our economy. So what can we do to improve performance?

Much of the debate has focused on political programs: No Child Left Behind and its revisions, the level of funding, school vouchers. However, the efforts to boost student effort and achievement within the current structure are equally intriguing. Two ideas that I’ve recently been reading about include paying students for achievement and separating out grades for knowledge vs. grades for good classroom “citizenship.”

Paying students for achievement has been very controversial: other studies of incentive programs have suggested that offering incentives can take away from forming the intrinsic enjoyment of the task. Yet Freyer’s study (reported in Time magazine) suggests that students perform better when economic incentives are tied to inputs (i.e., attending class, completing assignments, etc) rather than outputs (i.e., improving performance), and when feedback is more immediate. Freyer speculates that students not only feel like they have less control over increasing performance, they may lack the knowledge about the tools necessary to succeed. Meanwhile, the second proposal advocates separately grading students for performance and knowledge retention and their classroom behaviors and attitudes.

I think both of these ideas have a lot of potential – especially when combined. What they share is the recognition that “inputs” or “citizenship” is not the same as “output” or “knowledge” – and that both need to be rewarded, whether by payment or by grades – or both. Further, Frey’s study demonstrates that getting kids to increase their input (through incentives) often leads to the goal of increasing their knowledge and test performance.

Teaching undergraduates has shown me that students need both the basic skills to succeed, but also the motivation and the work ethic to improve themselves and learn more. Separating out these two processes should help everyone: very smart kids will not be able to rely on their brains to give them good grades overall despite lack of classroom effort, whereas the driven students who struggle will still be rewarded for their efforts.

Understanding and rewarding both effort and knowledge should be a focus of our education system, as both will be required regardless of the job sought. So while we may have all heard the phrase “A for effort,” maybe it’s really time we start giving out those A’s – and maybe some cash as well – for the effort.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *