Wise Up Journal

The following excerpt was written by John Taylor Gatto, the New York three time teacher of the year, in his book “Underground History of American Education”. It points out what happens to quality and motivation once money is involved. Keep in mind that when Gatto observes flaws in one system it does not mean he is pro the opposite system (which can be just as bad) – capitalism vs communism.

Underground History of American Education
Chapter 13

Paying Children To Learn

As it turned out, my own period of behaviorist training came back to haunt me thirty years later as garlic sausage eaten after midnight returns the next afternoon to avenge being chewed. In 1989, to my delight, I secured a substantial cash grant from a small foundation to pay kids for what heretofore they had been doing in my class for free. Does that sound like a good idea to you? I guess it did to me, I’m ashamed to say.

Wouldn’t you imagine that after twenty-eight years of increasingly successful classroom practice I might have known better? But then if we were perfect, who would eat garlic sausage after midnight? The great irony is that after a long teaching career, I always made it a major point of instruction to actively teach disrespect for bribes and grades. I never gave gold stars. I never gave overt praise, because I believe without question that learning is its own reward. Nothing ever happened in my experience with kids to change my mind about that. Soaping kids, as street children called it then, always struck me as a nasty, self-serving tactic. Addicting people to praise as a motivator puts them on a slippery slope toward a lifetime of fear and exploitation, always looking for some expert to approve of them.

Let me set the stage for the abandonment of my own principles. Take a large sum of money, which for dramatic purposes, I converted into fifty and one hundred dollar bills. Add the money to a limited number of kids, many of them dirt poor, some having never eaten off a tablecloth, one who was living on the street in an abandoned car. None of the victims had much experience with pocket money beyond a dollar or two. Is this the classic capitalist tension out of which a sawbuck or a C-note should produce beautiful music?

Now overlook my supercilious characterization. See the kids beneath their shabby clothing and rude manners as quick, intelligent beings, more aware of connections than any child development theory knows how to explain. Here were kids already doing prodigies of real intellectual work, not what the curriculum manual called for, of course, but what I, in my willful, outlaw way had set out for them. The board of education saw a roomful of ghetto kids, but I knew better, having decided years before that the bell curve was an instrument of deceit, one rich with subleties, some of them unfathomable, but propaganda all the same.

So there I was with all this money, accountable to nobody for its use but myself. Plenty for everyone. How to spend it? Using all the lore acquired long ago at Columbia’s Psychology Department, I set up reinforcement schedules to hook the kids to cash, beginning continuously—paying off at every try—then changing to periodic schedules after the victim was in the net, and finally shifting to aperiodic reinforcements so the learning would dig deep and last. >From thorough personal familiarity with each kid and a data bank to boot, I had no doubt that the activities I selected would be intrinsically interesting anyway, so the financial incentives would only intensify student interest. What a surprise I got!

Instead of becoming a model experiment proving the power of market incentives, disaster occurred. Quality in work dropped noticeably, interest lessened markedly. In everything but the money, that is. And yet even enthusiasm for that tailed off after the first few payments; greed remained but delight disappeared.

All this performance loss was accompanied by the growth of disturbing personal behavior—kids who once liked each other now tried to sabotage each other’s work. The only rational reason I could conceive for this was an unconscious attempt to keep the pool of available cash as large as possible. Nor was that the end of the strange behavior the addition of cash incentives caused in my classes. Now kids began to do as little as possible to achieve a payout where once they had striven for a standard of excellence. Large zones of deceptive practice appeared, to the degree I could no longer trust data presented, because it so frequently was made out of whole cloth.

Like Margaret Mead’s South Sea sexual fantasies, E.L. Burtt’s fabulous imaginary twin data, Dr. Kinsey’s bogus sexual statistics, or Sigmund Freud’s counterfeit narratives of hysteria and dream, like the amazing discovery of the mysterious bone which led to the “proof” of Piltdown Man having been discovered by none other than Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who, after the fraud was exploded, refused to discuss his lucky find ever again), my children, it seemed, were able to discern how the academic game is played or, perhaps more accurately, they figured out the professional game which is about fame and fortune much more than any service to mankind. The little entrepreneurs were telling me what they thought I wanted to hear!

In other unnerving trends, losers began to peach on winners, reporting their friends had cheated through falsification of data or otherwise had unfairly acquired prizes. Suddenly I was faced with an epidemic of kids ratting on each other. One day I just got sick of it. I confessed to following an animal-training program in launching the incentives. Then I inventoried the remaining money, still thousands of dollars, and passed it out in equal shares at the top of the second floor stairs facing Amsterdam Avenue. I instructed the kids to sneak out the back door one at a time to avoid detection, then run like the wind with their loot until they got home.
How they spent their unearned money was no business of mine, I told them, but from that day forward there would be no rewards as long as I was their teacher. And so ended my own brief romance with empty-child pedagogy.