How McDonald’s Is Spoiling America’s Future Workforce

mcdonalds.jpgU.S. News and World Report ran a story a few days ago about how schools are doling out prizes to reward students for good behavior and academic achievement. Incentives such as Happy Meal coupons, iPods, cash and even cars are being handed out to students in hopes that it will motivate them to do better in school.

A particular New York City public school is spending upwards of $170,000 to reward students for taking mandatory standardized tests.

The article quotes Roland Fryer, the head of the project:

“Roland Fryer, a Harvard professor of economics, says it’s “absurd” to expect children who grew up in poverty, with parents who, for example, dropped out of school, to appreciate the value of education without giving them immediate rewards for taking school seriously. As the chief equality officer for New York City public schools, Fryer oversees a pilot program that pays students from low-performing schools $25 and $50 for doing well on standardized tests. “We’re not undermining this idea of learning for the love of learning,” Fryer says. “We’re trying to cultivate it by making education tangible for these kids.”

What’s scary about this is that it plays into the “instant-gratification” culture our country seems to be developing. Children are no longer being taught the satisfaction of hard work and a job well done. They are being taught that money is the only reason to do anything. Is it no wonder then that the younger generation of workers now entering the workforce expect to be paid six-figure salaries and work on their laptop at the beach after only 6-months employment? Is that not the reward they’ve come to expect from a lifetime of trading performance for money?

As for the aforementioned children who grow up in poverty with parents who dropped out of school, their motivation to learn and get ahead is right in front of them. If anything, these are the children who should understand the “value” of education the most since they see, firsthand, the real-life struggles that come from not earning a high school diploma.

I don’t agree that we must make education “tangible” for the same reasons I don’t believe bonuses and pay raises motivate people to do quality work. Once the expectation has been set, be it in school or later on in the workplace, that the only reason to do a good job is for a tangible, monetary reward, you have essentially robbed people of the desire to excel to a level past the minimum. Why strive for an A when I get $25 a C+? Why strive to retain customers if I only get paid for bringing them in?

The Chief Happiness Officer, Alexander Kjerulf, has an excellent post that touches on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation and Why “Motivation by Pizza” (or Happy Meal Coupons) Doesn’t Work.

Update 3.6.08

Looks like the New York public school system is at it again! Except this time, instead of ipods, cash or cars, they’re handing out cell phones to Brooklyn’s top students.

“Education officials began doling out cellphones to 2,500 students on Wednesday as part of a closely watched experiment to try to change the way teenagers think about doing well in school. The pilot program, at three Brooklyn middle schools and four charter schools, is part of an effort by Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein to motivate students to perform better academically — and reward them when they do.”

You can read the full article in the New York Times here.


21 responses »

  1. This is an interesting phenomenon really, as I think it points to our society’s emerging change in perspective towards education. Whereas we valued education for the sake of knowledge, the last century has turned schooling into another form of pre-job training. While I think it’s important to instill proper work values and a sense of realism proportionate in school to the workforce, I think perhaps we’re just losing our desire for knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Intelligence and personal development just aren’t as important these days as a hefty salary and high-end job title.

    In the end, I don’t think this system really rectifies any problems. It’s always the most motivated people who get As in the first place, so it’s these same people that will win the rewards. It may inspire as many as 1 in 50 students to attain a level they might otherwise have not, but I believe that anyone who would not have worked for As prior will be unlikely to suddenly attain one for a reward that the ever-hardworking students are more likely to win anyways.

  2. Thank you. An excellent post, about something I too have recently written about in my WordPress blog:

    The only objection I have to it is your line: “What’s scary about this is that it plays into the “instant-gratification” culture our country seems to be developing.” Instead of “seems to be developing,” the line should read “has developed.” It’s done. It’s long been that way. The sense of entitlement among Americans is stunning, especially compared to much of the rest of the world, parts of Asia and the Middle East excepted, where it can be even worse.

    I’ll mention your article in mine, if you don’t mind.


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  4. The incentives make sense. Yeah, sure, not for a the long term, but for the purposes of the institutions running these programs, it makes sense. Personal development shouldn’t be affected by such incentives.

  5. If the economy supports this, what can we do to stop it? The world is reeling from a shift from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge-based economy. We would be foolish to cherish the good old days in favor of economic development–at least, once the old schoolers become destitute we would realise the problem and want to know how to foster actual forward progress in this economic circumstance. It is too bad that things are changing soo fast but we cannot shield the next generation from it. And the sooner they learn that the benefits are random (such that hard work is promoted all the time) the better!

  6. When you mention the kids growing up in poverty you say that “their motivation to learn and get ahead is right in front of them.” I believe the real situation to be counter-intuitive. From the number of truly impoverished kids I’ve worked with in an inpatient setting they’ve taught me that the expectation of the neighborhood is powerful: don’t join the straight world or you’re a chump. Although there are some kids who can see through that it’s just like anywhere else, the ones who don’t follow the social norm are the minority.

    I wrote more on this and ended up putting it on my blog as a post. Thanks for the opportunity to vent.

  7. Is it really such a bad thing to reward academic achievement?

    Education without an end in sight is meaningless; while I don’t disagree that the value of education is certainly more than the sum of its parts and the job it gets you with a degree in hand, the bottom line is an educated person expects his/her education to work for them once their ‘formal’ eduction is finished, whether or not they appreciate the intangible benefits of well-rounded studying.

    Those of us who do appreciate the qualities of education beyond the realm of physical compensation will live a richer life, while those who don’t will quickly learn A)the bare minimum doesn’t cut it in the real world and B)their life is devoid of meaning outside the workplace. These people are inevitable: you can’t teach quality of life in a classroom. It has to be learned from experience, friendship, family, and a plethora of sundry phenomena which formal classroom education isn’t entirely equipped (nor should it be) to inform.

    Not to mention, schools which provide incentives for good grades will inevitably reap their own benefits down the line in reputation, prestige, endowments, and increased enrollment if their tactics are successful.

    The real travesty of McDonald’s is their dilution of the coffee profession, deigning to call their servers ‘baristas’, a term reserved for craftsmen and artisans. But that’s a different topic entirely.

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