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Incentives - or bribes?

For some students, the test not only brings great stress but cool prizes. While some local educators question the practice, others view it as a form of positive reinforcement.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published March 5, 2006

Halfway through this year's round of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, public school students across the state are soldiering on - and keeping their eye on the prize.

For some, the incentive is simply the good feeling that comes with a job well done.

For others, it's all about the goodies.

From Miami to Pensacola, kids are vying for the chance to win everything from movie tickets and bicycles to iPods and X-boxes. Students at a high school in the Panhandle are in the running for a new car.

All they have to do is show up, do well on the test and demonstrate a good attitude.

Meanwhile, most students in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties will have to settle for the good feeling. That's because many local educators are taking a lower-key approach when it comes to incentives.

No school, for example, is giving away a car. And with the exception of some elementary schools, few are doing anything at all out of the ordinary.

"We're not going to give our students $100,000, and we're not going to give them a trip to China," said Melissa Campbell, a reading coach at Osceola High School in Seminole. "There's nothing we're going to do other than say, "That was good.' "

It could be that eight years after Gov. Jeb Bush introduced his "A+

plan" to boost student achievement, students have begun to take the FCAT in stride. After all, this year's 10th-graders have sat for the test every year since they were in third grade.

Nevertheless, the stakes are dearer than ever. Schools with high scores are rewarded with thousands of dollars in state recognition money while low scores can prevent third-graders from being promoted and deny high school students a diploma.

Schools that fail to show improvement as measured by the test also risk losing federal money for programs to help struggling students. And just last month, the state announced a new plan that will link student FCAT scores to teacher bonuses.

It's unlikely schools have become complacent given that type of pressure, educators say. What's more likely is that teachers spend all year preparing students for the FCAT so the kids are ready for it when the time comes.

"We try to concentrate on high student achievement on a daily basis, not just one or two weeks of the year," said Dwight Raines, principal at Buchanan Middle School in Tampa. "We don't do anything different at FCAT time because we do things throughout the year to reward attendance and good behavior."

* * *

Offering incentives for good grades is nothing new. Some parents have been rewarding children for bringing home A's on their report cards for ages. And teachers have always used rewards such as pizza parties and ice cream socials to motivate kids to do better.

But opinions vary on whether such perks are helpful in the long run. Alfie Kohn, an author and lecturer on human behavior, education and parenting, calls incentives "horribly counterproductive," especially when they're used to reward kids for performance on standardized tests.

"What's happening in many schools marries a terrible method to an inexcusable objective," Kohn said. "The intrinsic motivation or interest in learning is likely to decline as a result of treating these kids like pets by feeding them a doggie biscuit."

Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing in Cambridge, Mass., said such "bribes and bounties" trivialize education and send the message that success is nothing more than high test scores.

"Kids aren't learning for the sake of learning but solely to get the goodies," Schaeffer said. "The ones who internalize that message are at a real disadvantage when they go on to college."

Not all professionals agree. Ruth Peters, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating children, said she thinks incentives are "a great idea."

"I'm a big believer in jump starting good behavior by using extrinsic measures and then hoping kids see the benefit of good grades so it becomes second nature," said Peters, who has been in private practice in Clearwater for 30 years.

Many local educators agree with her.

"I think any time we can recognize children for doing what we want them to do, there can be no harm in it," said Carol Thomas, an assistant superintendent in charge of Pinellas elementary schools. "We want them in school and we want them to be learning. I think we need to recognize that behavior."

Several area elementary schools are doing just that. At 74th Street Elementary in St. Petersburg, principal Cooper Dawson will hand out McDonald's gift certificates to students who have perfect attendance and show up on time for the test. Students who demonstrate the same behavior at Belcher Elementary in Clearwater will be in the running for one of six bicycles. And children who score in the top levels of the FCAT at Sheehy Elementary in Tampa will get a limo ride to an area restaurant where they will eat for free with principal Carolyn Hill.

"I feel kids need to know there are rewards for doing what is right," Hill said. "You go to work, you get a paycheck. You have a good driving record, you get a lower insurance rate. I think it's all in alignment with how the world works."

But other local educators question the practice of rewarding children for doing what they say kids should be doing anyway.

"Our mission statement and our belief is that school is work and we come to school to do a job," said Sue Boyd, principal at Azalea Elementary School in St. Petersburg. "We would never consider paying anybody to come to school to take a test."

* * *

Experts agree that performance incentives change as children get older. Social events and celebrations are more likely to appeal to middle schoolers than prizes for individual achievement, said Shelby Harvey, an assistant superintendent in charge of Pinellas middle schools.

At the same time, too much emphasis on rewards can actually put more stress on middle schoolers, said Wynne Tye, general director of middle school education for Hillsborough County.

"There's a fine balance," Tye said. "You don't want to stress the kids out so badly that they worry too much, but you want them to take the test seriously."

And therein lies the challenge, secondary educators say. Many students, especially freshmen and sophomores, blow off the test because they know it won't affect their grade point average.

John Leanes, principal at Boca Ciega High in St. Petersburg, hopes to counteract that attitude by promising a schoolwide celebration if his students bring their scores up enough to improve the school's grade.

And Lewis Curtwright, an assistant principal at Countryside High in Clearwater, has been collecting token gifts such as movie passes and gift certificates while he works on pumping up his students' self-esteem. "One of the things I wanted to do was say, "This is a positive thing. It's a chance to show what you know,' " Curtwright said. "But it's also a chance for them to win a prize. Even if they have intrinsic motivation, an extrinsic reward might make them work a little harder."

He could have been reading Hubert Skowronek's mind.

Skowronek, a sophomore in the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High, said he's not worried about doing well on the FCAT. But he thinks many students, including him, would work harder if they knew there was a reward attached to their performance.

"Definitely if you knew you could win a car you would do a lot better," Skowronek said. "Even $50 would be an incentive."

[Last modified March 5, 2006, 00:52:12]

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