Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

You Have to Earn Your Gold Stars

As part of asking how we can get more out of America’s public school students, we must ask how they can get more out of themselves. This is not to say structural improvements are not essential. They are. Any effort to improve public primary education must include reduced class sizes and increased benefits for teachers otherwise drawn to private institutions. But in a world of increasing globalization, we must think creatively to retain our competitive edge in human capital.

This is a fact: throwing money at someone who does not want to learn will not make that person want to learn. Throwing money at someone can make her or him actually learn more, through such programs as extended one-on-one time, weekend classes, and summer school. But these substantial programs (on the rise with No Child Left Behind) carry substantial costs and, more importantly, only target students not passing a certain minimum score or grade. We need something to provide incentives for all students to learn, not just increased resources and attention for those below the bar. As Peter from “Office Space” has taught us, the threat of being held back can only make one work hard enough to not get held back.

So how do we make students want to learn? More specifically, how do we make students want to learn beyond a minimum, whether that implies the minimum performance required to advance to the next grade or involves not incurring the wrath of their parents? How do we make students want to learn to the best of their abilities?

Consider this: when grading begins in elementary school, students are often assigned to teams in each subject. Grades on subsequent work count toward a team’s overall score and are posted for all to see. The team with the highest score on a given assignment gets golden stars on a sticker board on the classroom wall, and whichever team has the most stars at the end of the year gets a pizza party.

There could be two teams per subject; there could be four. The teams could last a semester; they could last a month. The currency could be golden stars; it could be a special trophy. Whichever team is holding the trophy at the end of the teams’ stint gets that pizza party. These are issues of implementation. The principle here is that we socialize early primary education by making it team-oriented and public (as in grades on display).

Would it work? Would 9-, 10-, and 11-year-olds be motivated to work harder, and consequently learn more, with pride and pizza on the line? I believe so. From my experience as a kid and as a mentor of third-graders, I have learned that preadolescents, in general, crave attention, and as a result want to win and be recognized as a winner in everything they do. They compete in anything for which victory is immediate and apparent, from being first in line to go to recess to eating the most plates of pasta at lunch. This includes the legions of students currently underperforming in American primary schools, whether because their parents have not motivated them or because they find other activities “cooler.”

If such a system did indeed make kids work harder, would it be worth it? Do we want social pressures and competition to play a larger role in primary-school academics? I believe we should. Peer encouragement and support in our early most formative years should not, as is the case now, derive almost exclusively from performance in non-academic areas such as athletics. With teams and posted scores, we could foster in schoolwork the kind of back-patting and mutual enthusiasm that now flows between kids in sports and video games. Structuring academic competition in a team context would also prevent its becoming cutthroat, so that schoolwork would be neither “every man for himself” nor hierarchical. The student with the lowest individual score on the team with the highest total score would still get a slice, and furthermore still thank his or her buddies for getting him or her that slice.

The ideas behind my proposal are not too revolutionary. People are often competitive. People, especially kids, like rewards that are immediate and apparent. Award ceremonies for academic achievement address the issue of recognition, but they lack the immediacy and frequency necessary to motivate shortsighted students who are not yet concerned with career prospects.

Held annually at my elementary school, such ceremonies struck me as parades of the unpopular and physically awkward. Nonetheless, I heard the rounds of clapping from students, teachers, and parents, and for more than a moment I wished I had worked hard enough to have had my name announced at the principal’s podium that day. When a love of learning or a parent’s high expectations are lacking, a system that triggers this kind of desire every day could drive America’s students.

Ian Miller is a sophomore in the College.

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