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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Fund Education... Not Root Beer Floats for Merely Tolerable Behavior

I wanted to get excited about an article in this morning's Rapid City Journal about Walmart and Sam's Club giving away $100 gift cards in their Teacher Rewards program. The Walton empire is handing out $4.5 million to teachers this year to offset the estimated $500 that American teachers spend out of their own pockets on their students.

"Ah ha!" I thought. "Here's an example of how spending less at the state level doesn't save any money but only transfers costs off the budget and tax rolls and into the less visible column of individual spending." Take 8000 teachers in South Dakota (that's a low estimate), multiply by $500... that's four million dollars in public expenditure shifted to the workers hired to provide the service.

Now Walmart isn't making up the entire difference or handing gift cards to every teacher. Last week, the local Sam's Club gave ten teachers at Rapid City's South Park Elementary each $100 gift cards, intended for supplies or nutritious snacks for the kids (the kind of thing you can buy in big bulk packages at Sam's Club).

But then one teacher dampens my enthusiasm for this conversation by spending $45 of her gift on the following "educational" expense:

[Fifth-grade teacher Hollie] Hoffman has been teaching for seven years and likes to use incentive parties to motivate or to reward good behavior. On Friday, her class got root beer floats because, during the month of September, all students had less [sic] than three behavior demerits and fewer than five late assignments [Mary Garrigan, "Rapid City Teachers Reach into Own Pocketbooks to Reach out to Students," Rapid City Journal, 2010.10.05].

I guess I really am out of touch with pragmatic modern teaching. I cringe at the thought of handing out treats and throwing parties for students just because they've managed to behave themselves most of the time. And the standards in Hoffman's classroom are apparently pretty low: the kids can be late on homework once a week and still get root beer praise.

That's reason #847 we're homeschooling for as long as we can. We need to get kids back into the mindset that learning and behaving are their own rewards, that there are things we're just supposed to do, not because we'll get praise and goodies but because they are the right things to do.

I balk at this sort of bribery even as an employee. During my three abominable months working in a call center, management picked some arbitrary sales-to-leads ratio and said if we beat it, the company would buy us all tickets to a ski lodge and lots of booze. That was when it hit me that the work I was doing had no real value in itself... and that I wanted out.

I am relieved that Principal Rick Owen at Rapid City's Pinedale Elementary says public funds are strictly allocated for educational expenses, not pizza parties. And Hoffman says she spends her out-of-pocket money on her kids "because I want to, not because the district funds are so inadequate."

Well, that's a relief, because when teachers feel the need to bribe kids into nominally decent behavior, we have a problem with something other than funding in our education system.


  1. Read Dan Pink's book Drive. It's about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

  2. Drive... looks interesting! On his website, Pink mentions "autonomy, mastery, and purpose" as the main elements of motivation... do you have any insight on how your teachers can apply (or are already applying!) Pink's thinking to the classroom?

  3. Man... I wish I got root beer floats for not having any late assignments! Although to be fair, we often get donuts or pizza on the last day--but I think that's partly to butter us up while we're filling out the course evaluation forms...


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