There is another article in The New York Times about the incredibly misguided incentive (pay-for-grades) program being implemented in some NYC schools in the fall.
What strikes me about this program is that it is a solution to the wrong problem. This (in addition to merit pay for teachers) implies that motivation is the problem in our schools. The students aren't motivated, so let's pay 'em. The teachers aren't motivated, so let's pay 'em more.
Motivation is not the problem.
Students want to learn.
Teachers want students to learn.
Dangling money in front of either or both parties is not going to help. This is where people whose experience is in corporate America (Joel Klein) or economics (our newly minute Chief Officer of Equality, Roland G. Fryer, who's the man behind the incentive program) show that they just don't get what education is all about. It's not about money or profit. Those of us involved in education realize that the techniques used to improve sales is not what is going to improve teaching and learning.
The problem is that our focus is completely wrong and getting more and more wrong as we go. If you really want to help solve the education problems we are supposedly facing (problems which are not new by any means), the first step is to get rid of standardized testing and/or the implications the results of those tests have on students and educators. Assessment of this kind drives instruction and this kind of assessment drives instruction right into the ground. Instead of the carrot approach of the incentives, it offers the stick of bad grades. It makes life in the classroom boring, useless, and foreign to everyone's real motivation.
What is the real motivation in schools? To learn and to teach. Children of all ages (and, frankly, adults) have a natural curiosity about the world around them. We want to learn about what is going on around us. Schools should foster and encourage this kind of learning. Then we won't need carrots or sticks. The motivation will come from inside the learner and teacher.
Offering rewards and punishments has never made anything better. You may temporarily get what you want, but the spirit that will sustain change will disappear as soon as the carrot or stick disappear. We need to foster this spirit - the desire to learn about the world around us - in order to create real education change.