Two Southern California high school students walked away from graduation last week with more than just a diploma. They took home brand new cars.
As part of LA Unified's attendance program, dubbed "I'm In," students throughout the district won cars, iPads and cash gifts just for showing up to school. But is rewarding perfect attendance with big prizes really the right way to motivate kids to learn?
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, assistant professor at USC's Rossier School of Education, says this method has a good and bad consequences.
"There are two sides to this. One is that it does bring people's attention to the importance of attendance in school. You can't do well in school if you're not there, and the school districts don't get their funding if the kids aren't there, on the one hand," said Immordino-Yang. "On the other hand, we also know in educational psychology that giving kids what we call extrinsic rewards, things that you give somebody for their performance, actually undermines the way in which they learn."
Giving young people financial rewards for doing something they're supposed to do anyway changes the focus from understanding, memory and integration of knowledge and critical thinking to a focus on the reward. Once the student accomplishes the reward, they often don't feel the need to continue that behavior.
"You're focusing them on the short-term extrinsic reward at the expense of long term memory," said Immordino-Yang. "The kids who won these awards could very well be still intrinsically interested in the subjects…All they're thinking about right now is the car that they want. That's what is going to be the most salient memory for them in the future, not the chemistry they learned in order to get it."
Plus, once these students go to college, there will no longer be immediate, tangible rewards to work toward.
"It's true that when you go to college and do well, you have a better chance at a good job, you have a better lifestyle and you can make a higher salary," said Immordino-Yang. "In that sense, it's not that our extrinsic rewards are completely divorced from the things that we do and learn, but when they're most salient, biggest most immediate reward for doing well, it really undermines the way in which you think about the purpose of learning."