Seven Reasons to Rethink Educational Incentives

Seven Reasons to Rethink Educational Incentives

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The United States’ global standing in education—especially in math, reading and science—is falling. There are hundreds of opinions on why and even more potential fixes. One more than almost any other inspires passion on both sides of the debate: rewards for grades. Educational incentives have been proposed, opposed, case-studied, and beta-tested, but no matter where you stand on the topic, it’s time to rethink the way we see them.

1. Educational incentives are not the solution.

Educational Incentives are a solution. The mistake in communicating the positive effects of educational incentives is that they are packaged as the only solution to improving the United States’ educational standing when they are really a possible ingredient in the overall recipe for success.

At no point in this discussion should educational incentives be seen as a panacea. Instead, incentives are a contributing factor that will help motivate students. When it comes to ensuring students’ success and preparing them for a world full of incentives from paychecks, to punch cards, and performance based bonuses – educators, intrinsic drive, parents, positive school culture and incentives all contribute. As we look for ways to to fix our educational landscape, incentives are an ‘and’ rather than an ‘or’.

2. Fostering Good Habits.

We are our habits. The best parents and educators instill positive habits within the next generation. Motivating students along the way with rewards provides clear and relevant recognition in the short-term to help students create positive habits for the long-term. As Aristotle stated: “Good habits formed in youth make all the difference.”

Claiming that incentives are the sole reason students will succeed is like claiming that an introductory gym class is why Michael Jordan went pro. It may have sparked an interest, just as an incentive may light the fire of reward in a student. Gym class may have ignited good habits of work ethic by teaching the principles of the game, as incentives may, but continued hard work and persistence lead to ultimate success.

3. Empowerment through Recognition.

Recognition is powerful. Incentives are all around us. Whether it was a glowing report card comment or a gold star on a quiz, many of us appreciated our teachers’ appreciation.

Critics of educational incentives claim that incentives are damaging because students will ultimately rely on them. But mistaking short-term incentives for long-term goals would be like mistaking the first flight of stairs for the top floor. Let’s give students more credit than that.

Gold star stickers awarded as an added bonus to A+ tests do not drive us or halt us. Did you stop striving for A’s after you just missed the cutoff for a star? Did that derail your life plan?

4. Instant Gratification.

We are educating the 140 character generation. The student demographic especially is accustomed to accessing information and achieving results at the click of a button. How can we associate instant gratification with education while keeping the end goal of academic success in mind?

We all remember that feeling of receiving our first paycheck. Mine was from my neighborhood dog walking service in middle school. It was empowering to earn money without having to ask my parents or a relative. It placed a value on my hard work, and I felt like a superstar. But trust me, walking a neighborhood’s worth of dogs has nothing on studying for one AP exam.

But imagine if this same feeling was associated with schoolwork. Schoolwork already has an intangible value; gaining a sense of mastery over a specific subject or discipline that only comes with time. Educational incentives can help sustain stamina in the quest for mastery. There is a disconnect in today’s system, however, due to the time spent on schoolwork without any immediate monetary gain.

The powerful feeling of acing a test cannot be matched, but what if the feeling of getting your first paycheck enriched that?

5. Rewards are earned.

There are many wonderful charities that provide support to students, but educational incentives are not charity. Whereas charities offer aid, rewards challenge, recognizing potential and valuing the efforts of students. Charities give the necessary tools and lunch programs; rewards give students agency and ownership of their education.

Something important to note is that students earn these rewards. My cofounder and I taught a mini-course on entrepreneurship for three years in West Philadelphia. We learned that students do not need saving. Students need opportunity. Even the students who lacked support systems at home demonstrated the powerful skills necessary for achieving academic success.

6. Extrinsic motivation is already prevalent in education.

Students are naturally inquisitive. It is worthwhile to examine what we already use to measure the quality of a student's performance. For many educators, a student’s academic curiosity and success reveals itself through grades.

Even the “best” students who have a true thirst for knowledge are cognizant of an extrinsic motivation: their grades, a huge motivator for studying and doing well in school. These numerical values set the requirements and in most cases determine the future trajectory of a student’s academic career. Get into a good college with better grades—how about score your dream job? Those sound like positive examples of extrinsic motivation and incentives.

7. Incentives help restore our confidence in the next generation

Millennials get a bad rap. We quickly picture teenagers who have their hands and eyes super glued to some kind of smartphone. In my experience, educational incentives have highlighted another side of this generation: their selflessness.

Empowerment builds confidence, and when a student is empowered, that student has the confidence to help others. I am the cofounder of a mobile application that provides rewards for student achievers based on their academic achievements. In my experience, it has been a pleasant surprise to see hundreds of students who have saved up for months receive gift cards that they then give to their parents for groceries, take a grandparent out for lunch or even buy a homecoming dress for a friend. Incentives give students spending power that they would not otherwise have, and we may be surprised where they use that power.


Educational incentives will not solve the issues that face America’s education system alone.

Administrators and educators are the ones who work each day towards closing that gap.

Let’s rethink educational incentives when it comes to fixing problems. Solving a problem isn’t always about fixing what’s wrong; it’s often about amplifying what’s going right. An engaged student is a successful student. Educational incentives can’t fix the myriad problems in our education system, but they can be a useful tool in expanding what’s going right – increasing student engagement. 

Logan Cohen (@LoganECohen) is a cofounder of Kudzoo.

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