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Are Student Incentives Justified?

In an attempt to motivate students to achieve at ever higher levels, school officials have used a variety of strategies.  I understand their intent, but I wonder if they've thought enough about the effect.

A case in point is the use of school-issued rubber bracelets with different declarations ("Wristbands provide incentives for better performance at Land O'Lakes High School," Tampa Bay Times, Nov. 4).  Although the school is already ranked academically among the best in Pasco County, Fla., administrators sought to spur students on even higher.  Those who earn the bands are granted more privileges, such as being able to go to the media center without a signed pass.

I believe in acknowledging achievement.  Schools have long done so through the year by the dean's list or at graduation by valedictorian status.  But I also think that learning should be its own reward. If students rely on external affirmation, what happens when it's not there?  Inner-directed students, on the other hand, are not affected.  They continue to work hard to satisfy themselves.

Notice that I've avoided the issue of self-esteem in this discussion. Critics will argue that wrist bands and the like will damage the self-esteem of students who do not qualify for them.  I say they need to  accept that there will always be differentiation in the workplace.  Even in academe, not everyone gets tenure or makes full professor.  In business, the distinctions are more pronounced. It's simply a fact of life.  In the final analysis, doing one's best is the only way to gain genuine self-esteem.

Nevertheless, many parents think that higher standards should be rejected because they make their children feel inadequate ("Are Kids Too Coddled?" The New York Times, Nov. 24).  I'm not advocating a boot camp mentality for schools, but I think we do a terrible disservice to young people by shielding them from the realities of life.  This means accepting that "not everyone's a winner in every activity on every day."  

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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