Rewards: How to Use Rewards to Help Children Learn – and Why Teachers Don’t Use Them Well

Published June 1, 2014

Opposition to incentives in education is the philosophical basis of opposition to merit pay for teachers and expanding school choice programs such as charter schools, vouchers, and tax credits.

The time is right for a book that forcefully and effectively defends the use of incentives and rewards in K-12 education. Failure to use rewards in classrooms has contributed to the poor academic performance of children, a crisis we must address if we want to preserve our freedom and prosperity. Rewards is a “wonderfully accessible book”(Jay P. Greene, University of Arkansas) that …

  • Directly confronts Alfie Kohn (the author of Punished by Rewards) and other prominent progressives on the issue of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.
  • Combines psychology and economics to create a more robust picture of how people and institutions behave and why incentives matter.
  • Bridges from incentives for students (at home and in classrooms) to incentives for teachers (performance-based pay) to incentives for schools (school choice).

Table of Contents

Preface – Acknowledgments – Introduction

Part 1. Why Use Rewards?
Chapter 1. The Psychology of Motivation
Chapter 2. The Economics of Incentives
Chapter 3. What the Evidence Says
Chapter 4. Setting the Right Goals

Part 2. Rewards and Learning
Chapter 5. Rewards at Home
Chapter 6. Rewards in Elementary Schools
Chapter 7. Rewards in Secondary Schools

Part 3. Using Rewards to Accelerate Learning
Chapter 8. Tests with Rewards
Chapter 9. Rewarding Good Teachers
Chapter 10. Rewards and Digital Learning
Chapter 11. Rewards and School Choice

Conclusion – About the Authors – Index


Walberg and Bast have produced what is best described as a practical tour de force into the world of incentives and rewards. They carefully document what the research literature says, debunk much of the public misunderstandings, and then consider the actual application of the principles along with the evaluations of such applications. Bravo!
Eric Hanushek
Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow
Hoover Institution of Stanford University

In this wonderfully accessible book, Walberg and Bast address an incredibly important and complex issue: How do we motivate children to succeed? As it turns out, some of what people think they know about the answer to this question turns out to be wrong. By carefully and clearly describing rigorous research, Walberg and Bast show how well-designed incentives could be used by parents and educators to instill in young people the drive to succeed.
Jay P. Greene
Department Head and 21st Century Chair in Education Reform
Department of Education Reform
University of Arkansas

Rewards confirms what great teachers know: Our children are driven to gain confirmation of their genuine success. In the clearest possible terms, Bast and Walberg make the case for rewarding a child’s achievement honestly and consistently. This work is long overdue and valuable for teachers and parents alike
Lisa Graham Keegan
CEO, Education Breakthrough Network
Former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction
Author, Simple Choices: Thoughts on choosing environments that support who your child is meant to be

Some educators reject the idea of rewarding students for academic achievement, claiming that children intrinsically love to learn and that rewards may undermine that love of learning. But Herbert J. Walberg and Joseph L. Bast point out that those claims are shaky at best. In this clearly written book, the authors discuss empirical studies that show tremendous successes from rewards, whether they are grades on tests or “play money” that can be used to purchase items at school. The authors place these findings into the broad context of today’s changing school environment, increasingly shaped by online learning and choice programs like vouchers and charter schools. They conclude that a realistic understanding of how learning occurs can transform our public schools.
Jane S. Shaw, President
John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy

Rewards is a refreshing and comprehensive look at the benefits of using rewards in all areas of K-12 education, including school choice. The authors explain when the government helps break down barriers to parents choosing the best learning environment for their children, it brings lasting rewards for parents and children, and for society as a whole.
Pam Benigno
Director, Education Policy Center
Independence Institute

Walberg and Bast have penned a thought-provoking look at incentives in the classroom, and made a compelling case for why getting those incentives right matters. Rewards provides both a look at the research and a practical guide for using incentives to motivate students and teachers. This well-written analysis is a handbook for motivating self-directed student learning, and is a must-read for parents, teachers, and principals.
Lindsey Burke
Will Skillman Fellow in Education
The Heritage Foundation

I eventually did well academically but I was a terrible junior high and high school student back in Queens in the early and mid-’60s. This might have had something to do with how I rarely did any homework or read any of the books I was supposed to. I’ve long claimed there wasn’t anyone back then, from Governor Rockefeller on down, who could have gotten me do so. I’ve also long claimed that in developing grand education reforms we generally downplay the simple fact that, at the end of school days, great numbers of students simply won’t be interested in cooperating. How to more effectively motivate kids not inclined to do their homework or read assigned books? For their sake and everyone’s, please read this path-breaking and invaluable book by Herb Walberg and Joe Bast.
Mitch Pearlstein, Founder and President
Center of the American Experiment

The authors have analyzed the information available, and they argue that rigorous research shows that properly designed rewards achieve desired changes in behavior, for both students and teachers. I have noticed that Progressive schools which eliminate awards for academic achievement as elitist still keep score in school games, and still pay the teachers. In this work, the authors have suggested a number of reward strategies, some old and some still being tested. This book will surely stimulate yet more useful discussion of the best ways to influence the elusive and essential motivations of the various people (including students) in our schools.
Will Fitzhugh, Founder
The Concord Review

It seems so obvious: Rewards motivate us all. The authors clearly refute the research of the nay-sayers to show the positive effects of rewards on motivation when applied to learning. To be most effective on prompting a person to take action or to contemplate the results, educational goals should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound. To date, too few options exist as rewards on motivation to education; however, Walberg and Bast offer specific, competitive and economical choices to remedy the status-quo.
Charlene K. Haar, Consultant,

Herbert Walberg and Joseph Bast are by no means opposed to education that is engaging and builds upon the interests of students, but their solidly documented book challenges the naïve belief that intrinsic interest is enough, and the parallel assumption that teachers are so high-minded that there is no need to reward them for efforts going beyond the mediocre routine. Their account of how a variety of rewards function in families as well as in schools is bracingly realistic and packed with practical strategies. It upsets many of the enshrined pieties that have dominated discussion about education.
Charles L. Glenn, Ed.D., Ph.D., Professor
Educational Leadership and Policy Studies – Boston University

From eighteenth century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to modern pop psychologist Alfie Kohn, progressives have maintained that children are naturally motivated to learn, and that to offer them achievement incentives demolishes their zest for learning. This well-researched book is a powerful antidote to such fanciful thinking. Walberg and Bast draw from economics and psychology to demonstrate how carefully designed rewards immensely benefit students, parents, and entire schools. Their work is packed with many practical, incentive-based ideas that parents, teachers, and school policy-makers could put to use to boost the quality of education for America’s young.
Robert Holland, Senior Fellow
The Heartland Institute
Author, To Build a Better Teacher: The Emergence of a Competitive Education Industry
and Not With My Child, You Don’t