Ethical Educator

The $20 Motivator
School Administrator, October 2018

Scenario: A high school English teacher shares with his principal the difficulty he experiences in motivating his students. For an upcoming unit exam, he wants to offer a $20 bill to the student scoring the highest grade and $20 to the student recording the biggest improvement over the previous exam. He defends the practice by arguing that if love of knowledge alone is the reward, why then do schools offer prizes for various accomplishments? Should administrators permit this teacher’s attempt at motivating students?

Max McGee: 
This well-meaning teacher’s idea is not inherently unethical, but the answer to his question must be a resounding, unqualified NO, NEVER. While he is not the first to use a money to motivate and engage students, I hope he is the last.

Among the many reasons are that a significant body of research exists regarding the limited, temporal value of extrinsic motivation ($20) versus the deep, sustained value of intrinsic motivation (learning for the interest, curiosity, relevance, joy, and love of learning). In other words, working to win $20 for succeeding on one test may temporarily motivate some students, but it is not likely they will long remember much less apply the knowledge they were trying to acquire for the $20 or even continue to be motivated on the next test without a similar monetary incentive.

Another reason for denying the request is that this method will only motivate a few students  those who already are doing well and likely to achieve the high score and those who are doing poorly and thus have the greatest room to improve. It also may foster unhealthy competition as those potentially high scorers can only win if someone else loses and thus these students may be tempted to gain advantages through legitimate outside sources (tutoring) as well as unethical darker tactics including cheating, cyberbullying, rumor mongering or other actions to disturb and thus distract competitors.

In addition, this teacher is unwittingly encouraging sandbagging (a/k/a hustling) that is, purposefully scoring low on one exam making it easier to get most improved on the next one when $20 is on the line. While we would like to think our students do not have these darker motivations for money, they will be the first to tell you  as they have told me  they can be their own worst enemies when it comes to cutthroat competition.

The $20 reward also raises expectations for future monetary rewards that, if not met, will alienate and probably anger students who by the teacher’s own admission are already not motivated. Yes, those few for whom the $20 may be achievable may take more notes, participate frequently, do their homework and study harder, but the other students  arguably the majority of the class  will be even more likely to disengage at best and disrupt at worst as they would perceive that the reward was not attainable and thus not fair.

So my advice to the administrators is to tell the teacher to invest his $40 in learning how to motivate students through connecting with them, caring about them, making the subject matter interesting and relevant, varying methods of instruction, affording them opportunities for discovery and exploration, attending to different learning modalities, engaging individuals and small groups in purposeful problem solving, and restoring joy to learning  to name a few.
Maggie Lopez:
The approach this teacher is proposing is not a strategy that will provide long-term motivation for these kids. Just do it for the money! It seems more like a Band-Aid for a more serious problem.

Why aren’t this teacher’s students motivated and what can he do about it? As teachers, when we wonder what motivates our students, we have to look at our instruction and presentation style. We also need to do some self-reflection and get feedback from our students. These are much tougher things to do than offer $20 to get students to improve. 

Motivating students today is tougher than ever. Thinking a $20 bill will solve the problem is an artificial attempt to address complexity, a quick fix, an oversimplified approach. Teaching kids is a great deal more complex and infinitely more cerebral than this.
Meira Levinson:
The teacher should not be permitted to pay students for their test scores, as such a practice (1) sets him up personally for very expensive, long-term failure (“You paid us last month, Mr. Taylor, why not this month?” “This is whack, I finally earned the top score and you aren’t paying?”); (2) undermines schoolwide incentive programs; (3) sets his colleagues up for frustration (“Mr. Taylor pays us for test scores; why don’t you?”); and (4) risks creating perverse incentives for students that will impede rather than foster learning.

Admittedly, the teacher is right that schools and teachers themselves often offer non-cash prizes to students for high levels of achievement and improvement. These may range from the free (homework passes, extra 10 minutes of recess) to inexpensive (pencil toppers, iTunes song download, ribbons) to quite pricey (fancy trophies, pizza party, Six Flags trip, letter jackets). The teacher is also right that schools do so in part to motivate students. In these respects, the teacher would not seem to be doing anything out of the ordinary in offering students a prize.

But there are three ways in which the teacher’s actions diverge from the school’s: first, in offering the prize in cold, hard, cash; second, for performance on a single test, rather than for overall performance in the subject or in school; and third, in limiting the prize to the top two students on specific metrics. These differences may seem small, but they matter in significant ways.
As noted above, they may well disrupt schoolwide incentive programs and diminish students’ commitment to other classes as opposed to the teacher’s class. They fail even to motivate students in the teacher’s own class after the test is over or on activities that seem unlikely to be tested. If the teacher does continue to pay students — and to do so in each of his presumably five or so classes, meaning he’s paying out $200 per test — then he may quickly go broke.

The teacher also fails to learn how to create intrinsically rewarding lessons and units and how to foster mutually rewarding with students, which are far better and more reliable means of motivating students than external rewards.

Finally, if this reward scheme continues, the majority of the class will remain unmotivated as they will realize they’re unlikely to be either most improved or the top scorer, and a few students may deliberately tank on one of the tests in order to earn “most improved” the next time.

In sum, the administration should hear this as a cry for help from this teacher and provide him mentorship and support so he can learn how to construct classroom content, pedagogies and culture that are intrinsically motivating.

Shelley Berman:

This strategy is ineffective and deflects attention from the real issue — the difficulty the teacher has in motivating students. First, the strategy is likely to be unsuccessful at motivating students who are not currently engaged. With only two awards, the one for highest grade would most likely go to a student who is already doing well in class. Even if the award for greatest improvement went to a student whom the teacher considers unmotivated, that student, realizing the award could probably not be earned a second time, would revert to previous behavior. Other unmotivated students, understanding their slim chance of securing the prize, would continue their current detachment from the class.

Second, the teacher would become known for providing monetary rewards. This strategy would undermine his reputation in other classes, where his students would want similar rewards. It might also result in accusations of discrimination if the awards were not structured to accommodate students with special needs or students who are English language learners. Because cash awards are not an appropriate or allowable school or district expenditure, the funds would have to come from his personal resources, likely undermining relationships with colleagues whose students might also request monetary incentives.

Third, extrinsic rewards fail to engender long-term motivation. Given that extrinsic rewards have no connection with enabling the student to find meaning in the material, the rewards would not stimulate interest in the subject and may, in fact, trivialize the content that the teacher is trying to convey. Schools offer prizes for achievements in academics, athletics and the arts, but these awards are acknowledgements of effort and excellence, not incentives to work harder.

Fourth, the teacher’s attitude undermines the outcome he seeks. He has stereotyped a group of students as unmotivated and academically deficient. It is likely that he has either explicitly or subtly communicated that stereotype to them, making them more apt to see themselves in a similar light. Given the dynamics of how stereotype threat operates, these students are not likely to respond to monetary incentives because they don’t see themselves as being able to succeed in securing them, even if they were interested. He has characterized the students as the problem, rather than recognizing his responsibility as a teacher and owning the problem himself.

Finally, the real issue is the teacher’s difficulty connecting with and motivating his students. Teaching is hard work and reaching all students is incredibly demanding. Instead of proposing simple but ineffectual responses, the teacher should seek assistance in developing approaches that have meaning for students and strategies that engage them in ways they find energizing and compelling. The question the teacher should be asking the principal is who can coach and mentor him so that he can help students make meaningful connections with the material he is presenting.

However, the teacher’s desperate desire to motivate students may indicate a more general schoolwide issue related to student apathy and disengagement, possibly reflecting the climate and culture of the school. If lack of motivation is a common issue for teachers at the school, the principal should begin a process to consider structural, cultural and instructional changes that would promote student voice, agency and engagement. These changes could include personalized learning, authentic project-based learning experiences and social-emotional learning strategies that reengage students and enable them to find meaning in their school work.

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of ECRA Group in Schaumburg, Ill.