Saturday, October 22, 2011

Performance Incentives Part 1

The school at which I work is currently in "warning" status; we did not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) last year.  This fact has our administration breathing down our necks to make sure we implement strategies in all of our classes to boost students' reading scores (primarily).  Allow me to adjust my tone — enabling teachers to help students develop important skills in ways that don't impede teachers' own class' learning requirements is a good thing, but I'm obviously bitter about the effects of standardized testing.

Part of this push to improve scores has been a discussion of student motivation.  I remember joking about making patterns with the answer sheet bubbles with my friends when I was in high school, and I probably knew a person or two who followed through.  Many students simply don't care.  With theory and research behind them, our administration considers it wise to offer incentives to the junior class based on their overall performance.  If we make AYP, perhaps the school could open up another part of campus for these students to eat their lunches next year, or perhaps we could allow them more freedoms during their study halls.

Taking another step back from students and their test scores, let's consider how schools are encouraged to produce better test scores.  Mostly thanks to No Child Left Behind, this encouragement comes in the way of threats to things that schools would prefer to maintain.  The message sent is that if scores don't improve, the state will first take away a school's ability to make decisions, then a school's administrators' jobs, and then a school's teachers' jobs.

Positive and negative reinforcement are terms that differ in their lay and scientific meanings.  In lay terms, positive reinforcement means saying, "Good job," and negative reinforcement means giving a spanking.  In the scientific terminology of that which I've read, positive reinforcement means providing the addition of something to a subject's experience, such as, "Good job, have a cookie."  Negative reinforcement means removing something from a subject's experience, such as, "Bad job, I'm taking away your toys."  According to these definitions, positive reinforcement could even mean, "Bad job, have a kick in the shin," and negative reinforcement could mean, "Good job, I'll now remove those pebbles from your shoes."  As far as I know, psychological research consistently demonstrates that positive reinforcement (adding something) is more effective than negative reinforcement (taking away something).

Given this background, I present to you conclusive evidence that politicians do not understand the things they need to in order to properly make decisions about education:

Schools attempt to incentivize good performance from students with positive reinforcement, as research and theory indicate they should.  The government attempts to incentivize good performance from schools with negative reinforcement, as nothing but illogical thinking indicates they should.  Therefore, people should recognize that educational policy-makers in government are incompetent.

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