How Rewarding Students Can Improve Educational Outcomes

Published March 15, 2015

Review of Rewards: How to use rewards to help children learn—and why teachers don’t use them well, by Herbert J. Walberg and Joseph L. Bast, The Heartland Institute, 210 pages, $14.95, 2014

Parents and grandparents often look to experts in child development and psychology such as Dr. Benjamin Spock, Dr. Barry Brasselton, Jean Piaget, or William Glasser for advice. Now there is an even more insightful book to help guide the healthy growth and future success of your child or grandchild. That book is Rewards: How to use rewards to help children learn—and why teachers don’t use them well. Walberg and Bast have done meticulous research, which includes 384 footnote sources of information to prove giving rewards to students can enhance their educational experience and increase their chances of success.

Walberg and Bast bring normally dry research to life in a wonderfully written book.

The authors explain why rewards are a necessary part of effective schooling, refuting the naysayers while exposing the conventional wisdom of psychologists and economists on this subject. They show how goals should be set, why they are important for teachers to accelerate learning, and how they fit into computerized or digital learning and nontraditional programs in charter schools, school choice programs, and voucher systems.

At the outset, Walberg and Bast (chairman and president, respectively, of The Heartland Institute, which publishes School Reform News) indicate how far the educational system has gotten from the commonsense recommendations in their book, writing, “the well-designed reward systems we describe do not include the unearned praise and uncritical recognition associated with the self-esteem fad that swept the U.S. in recent years.”

Using Rewards as Motivation

In a chapter titled “The Economics of Incentives,” the authors offer a highly relevant quotation from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations: “Better than relying on intrinsic motivation, is to have people compete with one another for rewards.” They also bring a host of other economists and psychologists into the debate. Even Aristotle appears frequently, with his comments on motivation. The overwhelming volume of research Walberg and Bast have studied leads them to conclude the current U.S. public education structure impedes academic success:

“Economists and political scientists have found inefficiency and bureaucracy are natural consequences of systems that aren’t exposed to competition and consumer choice. Bureaucracies are clumsy, expensive and often ineffective substitutes for market processes that otherwise reward responsible innovation and punish failure, inefficiency and laziness.”

Perhaps the most complex chapter in the book is “Setting the Right Goals,” as illustrated by their final two sentences:

“The best that can be hoped for is that educators, parents and students themselves will have a hand in goal setting and creating incentive systems. It can be a difficult balancing act requiring the best efforts of everyone involved.”

The chapter on “Rewards at Home” is a simple guide for encouraging children to become better than average achievers. Walberg and Bast warn, “Parents should not be misled by popular writers into thinking rewards are inappropriate or counterproductive in the home learning environment. Experience and research show just the opposite.”

Importance of Consequences

Although the authors are strongly opposed to the Common Core standards, which result in teaching to tests, they are in favor of testing. Walberg and Bast write, “Simply letting [students] avoid tests during their K-12 careers isn’t doing them any favors since tests with consequences will be a challenge they will face later in higher education and adult life.” They emphasize the rewards for testing should align with specific, measurable, attainable, and realistic goals.

The authors quote Frederick M. Hess, a former teacher and currently director of education studies at the American Enterprise Institute, explaining the plight of today’s public school teachers in a paragraph worth the price of this book:

“Teachers are hired, essentially for life, through drawn-out recruiting processes that pay little attention to merit and alienate many highly qualified candidates. Little or nothing about teachers’ or administrators’ performance affects their career or job security. Educators who propose new approaches or new efficiencies are treated with suspicion by district officials and must run a gauntlet of official and cultural resistance in order to try anything new. There is little systemic recognition for excellent educators, while pay, perks and assignments are distributed primarily on the basis of longevity. The result is a culture of public schooling in which educators learn to keep their heads down, play defense, and avoid causing waves.”

Walberg and Bast quote many other educators who describe the problem in equally brilliant and prescient terms. They then lay out a detailed plan of how these things could be changed, including establishing a program to pay public school teachers based on their performance. They also explain why these problems tend not to exist for private school teachers, where many of the authors’ ideas are already in place.

Chapter 11 focuses on school choice rewards and the desperate state of public education today, documenting how choice programs can improve educational outcomes for students. They describe the best of the charter school programs, voucher systems, scholarships, and even the Parent Trigger.

This book should be in the hands of every official charged with planning children’s education and every parent whose voice must be raised to demand a better education for their children.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is science director at The Heartland Institute.