Education Reform With Incentives and Reward Strategies in Chicago

The reward strategy implemented by the Chicago public school systems awards $10,000 to 60 different schools that have showed the most improvement on a standardized test. This reward strategy is somewhat suspect in its creation. I am a firm believer of using a reward system, however, I am not positive that offering money as the reward is appropriate.

As a junior high teacher of Reading last year, I utilized the “reward system” a lot. For example, I would offer the children a contest in reading comprehension or spelling. Whatever students completed the task correctly would receive a piece of candy. The kids work harder and appear more concentrated when there is a reward at the end of the task. I have recommended this tactic to many new teachers as a way to keep the children’s interest, especially in subjects most children dislike (Math). New teachers have approached me with astonishing results saying they could not believe the increased amount of effort a child will display when offered a piece of candy.

I fully endorse reward systems. However, I don’t think that offering money should be the reward. Many children are already over exposed to the desire for money. On television there are numerous shows where the contestant has to perform crazy stunts for money. Children also see the need for money in the contracts of athletes and movie/music stars. In Massachusetts where I live and teach, the lottery is the largest in the country. Many people buy lottery tickets in hopes of “hitting it big”. Children are constantly being given the wrong message that quantity is better than quality.

If you ask a child who their role models are or what they think a role model is, many will not say teacher or firefighter or policeman. They will say an athlete’s name or the name of a favorite pop star on television. Needless to say, the real role models will never be paid their worth in society in dollars, while the entertainers are typically very wealthy. Which brings us back to the worth of society; does society need teachers, firefighters, and police or does society need entertainers? Money is not a good choice of reward because it sends a message that “anything” can be bought.

Since it is obvious that I endorse the use of using a reward system, it is important to offer alternative suggestions that the city of Chicago could implement. Three suggestions that come to mind are the following: (1) give t-shirts to the entire school that have the name of the school on the front using the school colors and have a catchy slogan on the back like “We did it” or “We raised our test scores”, (2) offer a pizza and ice cream party to the entire school, and/or (3) the library would receive brand new books to replace the outdated material.

I will be the first to admit that I do not believe in standardized tests. In fact, for my Masters thesis I presented facts to support that standardized testing causes anxiety in middle school learners. One test does not measure a student and it does not measure a school. In Massachusetts they have started requiring the passing of a standardized test in order to receive a high school diploma. If the student does pass all the required credits to graduate, but does not pass the standardized test, the student will receive a (COA) which is simply a certificate of attendance.

When I started teaching I had three 7th grade classes and two 8th grade classes. The 8th graders that I had four years ago should have graduated from Brockton High School last month. When I checked the graduation log that is printed in the local newspaper I was astonished to see that only one out of those fifty eligible students I had in class four years ago graduated! Two percent of the class I had in 2000 graduated in 2004! I have been told through other students that many children drop out of school because they choose not to take the test. In their minds, as long as they don’t attempt the test, they technically have not failed it. Of course, who has really failed? In these cases, it seems as if the school system has failed these children.

The perimeters of the award in Chicago are about the amount of growth. Growth is a good thing. However, in most junior high schools, you lose half of your student population each school year. How can you compare kids that experience such transition in such a short period of time? How can you hold a school accountable when they only have children for two years? Elementary schools have children for at least five years and high schools have kids for at least three.

In Chicago, private parties donate the $10,000. The total of donated money is equal to $600,000. Why not use this money to offer after school programs? Why can’t everyone use this money?

Like I have mentioned previously, I agree with the using a reward system to generate interest and effort, and I agree in private donations of money to schools, but I don’t agree that the accountability of a student and his/her school lies in the results of one standardized test. Testing should be used to show progress in each individual child. Testing should be used to determine the academic level of a child (advanced, honors, basic), and it should not be used as a determinant for graduation.

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