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I recently had the occasion to visit a major city in Arizona, and happened upon a local news publication. I am a retired public school educator, so it should not surprise anyone that I would be interested in an article titled “(Local district) far exceeded state AzMERIT scores.”

The reported student test scores, while impressive, did not offer any surprises. The trends are pretty similar from state to state. However, I was struck by two quoted comments by the district superintendent in response to questions from members of the school board regarding a pattern of declining scores as children progress through the system; particularly during high school. The superintendent offered: “At the high school level, the state has seen a drop in performance on state assessments since incentives, such as scholarship opportunities, were removed. With incentives removed, some students are simply not motivated to perform well on the current tests.” He was also quoted as saying: “There are issues going on with kids that age that it’s national, so the question then is how do you overcome that?”

Like this district leader, I draw on my experience as a secondary level principal for eighteen years of my career to reach my conclusions. I agree that the fundamental cause of declining scores among high school students is a lack of motivation. However, I don’t believe that the source of the motivation decline is the elimination of incentives. It goes much deeper than that.

Incentives, as a form of motivation, are external or extrinsic. Some might argue that they are manipulative in nature and that they rely on a student’s willingness to comply with interests or concerns that they do not own. Substantial research evidence suggests that external forms of motivation do not support the type of high quality learning that will have lasting consequences in shaping the interests and eventual futures of the kids in classrooms. Even grades (the most common external motivating tool used in schools) do not offer reliable evidence that meaningful and lasting learning has occurred. While some students are motivated by extrinsic incentives (again, grades come to mind), their interest should not be automatically construed as genuine engagement and enthusiasm for mastery of the curriculum. It may be that Arizona’s decision to eliminate testing incentives was actually a step in the right direction.

Learning that is deep, resonate and lasting will best occur where the motivation to engage is internally driven, intrinsic motivation. When students have opportunities to explore their curiosity and to apply their creativity in the exploration of topics that they find interesting, or are introduced in a way that captures their imagination and builds on their interests, the likelihood of the calibre of learning that we aspire to for our children increases considerably. When students are intrinsically motivated they are much more likely to find value in what they are doing.

This leads to the dilemma imbedded in the superintendent’s question in citing a national issue, “How do we overcome that?” My experience tells me that the place to start is with the students themselves. If you ask any three high school students this question, “How’s school?”, two of them will respond with statements like: “It’s boring.” “I’m just not that interested.” “I don’t see how it connects with me.” Each of these comments are “kids speak” for a lack of perceived personal relevance and a lack of motivation to engage in an enterprise where they struggle to find value. However, if systems will then ask “What would make it better?”, kids will have a lot to say, and they will offer some tangible concepts to build upon.

I open my book, The Education Kids Deserve, with a quote by Tony Wagner from his 2008 work titled The Global Achievement Gap. “Teaching all students to think and be curious is much more than a technical problem for which educators, alone, are accountable. More professional development for teachers and better textbooks and tests, though necessary, are insufficient as solutions. The problem goes much deeper - to the very way we conceive of the purpose and experience of schooling and what we expect our high school graduates to know and be able to do.”

As systems engage with students in this level of meaningful inquiry, I’m confident that there’s one thing they won’t suggest. They won’t say: “If only we had some external incentives.”

(A more specific version of this piece, citing the district and its superintendent by name, will be published by the media outlet where the original article was found in its November 10, 2019 edition as a Guest Column.)

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