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What's the Right Reward for Good Grades?

Ten-year-old Johnny, a smart kid with poor math grades, arrives home brandishing a report card with an “A” in math, up from his traditional “C.” His proud parents should:

Frown and say, “It's about time!”
Hug him and say, “Good job, Johnny! We knew you could do it!”
Reward Johnny by taking him and his current BFF for burgers and a movie.
Buy Johnny a $200 iPhone.
Eagerly await Johnny's $100 “pay for performance” reward from the county school system.

If you answered a) you should probably take Parenting 101. If you answered b) or c) you are pretty wise in the ways of encouraging your kid. If you answered d) you are seriously over doing it (see a).  If you answered e) and live in Carroll County, don't hold your breath.

Nearby Baltimore City recently joined the growing ranks of school systems with a “pay for performance” program, spending almost $1 million to offer students as much as $110 each for improved scores on state-mandated tests required for graduation. Carroll County not only has no plans to put in place any kind of “pay for performance” system; it hasn't even been discussed here.

However, Assistant Carroll School Superintendent Steven M. Johnson noted that the practice of giving monetary rewards to improve academic performance in large urban school systems is becoming more common.

Unlike students in many urban school systems, however, Carroll students consistently perform at or near the top on statewide standardized tests. That gives the county no real impetus to launch such a systemwide program.

In addition, despite the fact that monetary rewards seemed to be gaining popularity across the country, especially in urban areas with significant populations of economically disadvantaged students, there is little, if any, sound research to demonstrate that they actually promote sustained academic achievement. Nor is there yet empirical data showing that monetary rewards for good grades result in strong achievement in the post-graduation working world.

But although the jury is still out on the efficacy of school-sponsored monetary rewards for academic achievement, that does not mean that students shouldn't be appropriately rewarded for good grades and improving their academic performance, educators say. The trick here – for both parents and the school system – is defining “appropriate.”

Both Johnson and Judy Klinger, the county school system's supervisor of guidance, believe that rewarding achievement is important. But too much reward for too little achievement is not healthy for children and is not going to teach kids the life lessons they need to succeed.

The school system rewards achievement with recognition activities such as honor roll assemblies. And individual teachers in this county constantly work to reinforce academic achievement and good behavior through praise and classroom rewards.

“I tell students that good grades are their own reward,” said Klinger, “and they should take pride in their achievement, regardless of whether they come with some kind of physical reward.”

Conversely, inattention in class and poor grades penalize no one but the student who underperforms. “If you don’t like the teacher and use that as an excuse not to work hard in class, you get bad grades and you hurt yourself. The teacher doesn't get hurt by it,” she said.

Parents need to keep things in balance when they consider rewards for their children's academic achievements. Still, in this age, when there seems to be no such thing as too much recognition (read “too much stuff”), some parents feel compelled to richly reward their children for even the most minor achievement.

Gone, apparently, are the days when parents or students thought a dollar for every “A” and a word of heartfelt praise were enough.

As a result, many kids grow up thinking that any positive behavior should generate an immediate reward of some kind. And going overboard in the reward department can stymie a child’s ability to generate a feeling of pride in good work for its own sake. It also makes for a rocky transition to the working world.

“Some parents praise or reward their kids for every thing they do. They praise them for achieving the ordinary, so the child thinks that everything he does is extraordinary. There is no sense of proportion. Some students come to school, even at an early age, with an incredible sense of entitlement,” said an elementary teacher who asked not to be identified.

“They believe they should get a prize for just showing up. They don't understand what real achievement is, and when they aren't constantly congratulated, they become frustrated and angry. And I believe that part of that anger and frustration comes from the child's understanding, deep down, that he hasn't really earned that praise.”

Life’s lessons are sometimes complicated, and it helps to instill early in your child’s life the somewhat old-fashioned, but still valid idea that virtue is, indeed, its own reward-and that learning for learning's sake enriches life.

“The grandparents gave my son five dollars because he got a really good report card,” said Johnson. “The next time report cards came out he got good grades but there was no five dollars and he wanted to know where his reward was. It was a great time to tell him he'd done a great job, but teach him that sometimes his reward is his own sense of achievement.”

Johnson also believes that the community service hours that the county school system requires for graduation also teach kids that rewards come in a variety of forms, and that sometimes the joy and satisfaction that comes from helping someone else – from giving back – is a form of self-reward. Apparently a lot of Carroll’s students are learning that lesson for themselves.

“Some students do only the number of hours we require, but a lot of our students do more,” Johnson said. “This year we had one graduate who had done 2,009 hours. We do require students to document their work. Some of them just stop doing the paper work when they reach 75 hours, but they continue to volunteer because they enjoy making a contribution to the community.”

With a dropout rate of less than 2 percent, Carroll’s school system is one that is clearly blessed with parents and students who understand the value of education. And that sense of value begins at home, said Klinger.

“High achieving is part of our culture,” said Klinger. “We aren't faced with some of the problems common in more urban schools. We have counselors, teachers, principals and administrators who consistently go the extra mile to keep students learning and to help them when things go wrong.”

Still, when students overcome obstacles, fight the good fight and reach beyond themselves to achieve the unexpected, a reward is in order.

“My advice to parents would be to make sure they keep the reward in proportion to the achievement. And sometimes a simple ‘good job’ is enough,” she said. “Sometimes we see parents really getting carried away. That doesn't do their children any good.”

So as Johnny continues through school, well-behaved, making the honor roll, giving back to his community and making his parents proud, he might eventually merit (and become mature enough to handle) that iPhone he covets today.

But save the celebratory family vacation to Europe to commemorate his National Merit Scholarship or a full scholarship to Yale.

Remember, it's all about balance.

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