The Top Ten Things Public Schools Are Doing Wrong Regarding Students’ Motivation

This may be an inflammatory post. I’m feeling rather opinionated, and overly reflective tonight as I chomp on crackers and listen to my newly christened teacher friend talk about how her first year on the job has been more disillusioning than ever. As she talked, I jotted down some things she mentioned. Then I backtracked to my own high school experience. I remember graduating in the top two percent of my class. More than anything, emphasis rested on class rank. While the course load was heavier than what I experienced in college, I don’t particularly remember much of the material I studied to graduate in the upper ranks. I took away practical skills, like writing and how to fill out your annual tax forms, but that was about it. I’m sure many of you would call high school a blur. But I’m also sure many of you may have differing opinions on the public school system in general. Here, I list the top ten things I personally believe public schools are doing wrong when it comes to student motivation. These are just my thoughts, with bits from my own experience that obviously deviates from yours. I am no one. Laugh.

1.Class Rank – When schools implement class rank and the awards of valedictorian and salutatorian when students are already very competitive, intrinsic motivation is threatened. Students take AP classes not out of interest, but because bonus points are added to their grade point average. They could be taking elective courses that spark their interest, such as culinary arts or painting, but choose not to because the AP classes boost their likelihood of obtaining a high class rank. Students do not read or do assignments to learn for the sake of it. Rather, they memorize information to perform well on tests, rather than develop a conceptual understanding of the class material. It does not matter that they learn, but rather, if they do “better” than other people. They fail to master the material, and instead put more effort towards racking up points to make it to the top.

2.Low Standards for Passing Grades – Some school districts have set “70” as a passing grade, while others such as ______ Independent School District have relied on the meager “60” as passing. Depending on the class and how it is taught, much may not be required to earn the 60 or 70. This puts failure-avoidant students at a disadvantage. They are motivated by not wanting to fail the class, and often, barely pass. They do not master the material, nor gain an adequate, conceptual understanding of what is taught if a modest amount of effort is required to pass. They are only concerned with obtaining the minimum grade, just as competitive students are mainly concerned with earning a top class rank without actually retaining content.

3.Material Goods Given in Exchange for Good Grades – When a school district gives students money or lavish items such as iPods and iPads in exchange for good grades, intrinsic motivation is also undermined because students no longer wish to learn, but rather, memorize and ace tests to fund trips to the mall or stifle their boredom. For the college-bound, a rude awakening awaits when they find that good grades in college do not entail luxurious rewards. Also, when the reward is given so often, it loses its “wow” factor, and students are not as gratified when receiving them. The reward loses its intended effect, and student performance may stagnate or even flounder.

4.Competition of Class Averages Between Class Periods – It isn’t uncommon for a teacher to promise a pizza party to whichever class earns the highest overall average over the six weeks’ term, semester, or simply a big exam. The students may not internalize the goal of doing well, seeing it as set by the teacher to make himself look good because his students would work harder and earn better grades. Or, like students competing for class rank, the students would do well, but not necessarily retain information. They only care about the pizza, or “beating” the other classes. They would not necessarily master the information taught.

5.“Accelerated Reader” Competitions – Elementary and intermediate schools often hold book-reading competitions in which the student with the most “Accelerated Reader” points receives a monetary reward or a gift card to a popular store or restaurant. The student is shallowly tested on comprehension skills, and points increase based on the number of pages a book contains. It isn’t uncommon to see a student skim or read through a book without absorbing its content. The student is only extrinsically driven by the reward at the end and doing better than others. Reading comprehension doesn’t exactly improve when you passively read to rack up on page numbers and points.

6.Overworked Guidance Counselors – Students with long term goals are at a disadvantage when few guidance counselors work at their high school and are often overwhelmed by a large number of students. The guidance counselors are often unable to help students compartmentalize their long term goals into several short term goals, nor discuss how they are to reach their goals, including admittance to a prestigious college or attending a vocational school after graduation. Students could even lose sight of their goals, abandoning them altogether or attempting to reach them inefficiently, with suboptimal results.

7.Paying for 100% of Students’ AP Exam Fees – It is not uncommon for school districts to pay for the entirety of students’ AP exam fees in economically disadvantaged schools. As the students’ family is not paying for the exam, its importance may be minimized in the students’ eyes and performance may be subpar.  Tests may be blown off as efforts to prepare for them become insubstantial. Passing the AP exam no longer remains a priority especially if a student receives bonus points on transcripts regardless of whether he or she makes the marks needed for college credit.

8.Teachers Required to Comply with a Failure Rate – Public school teachers are often required to have a set failure rate that they cannot surpass. This mandate often results in passing off students who may not have performed at the standard needed to advance a grade level or graduate. Older students may be aware of this, feel that they will be passed anyway because a teacher is legally required to, and not put forth an honest effort in class. The students do not even internalize the goal of passing because it is already achieved for them through the teacher’s being required by the state, school district, or school administration to pass the majority of his or her students. Yes, as a high school student, this information was relayed to me. By my own teachers.

9.Lack of Vocational Programs – Lack of vocational programs limits the variety of opportunities open to a student for goal-setting and personal success. The student may not identify with programs already existing for college-bound students and as a result, does not set goals he or she can honestly internalize and enjoy working towards. Consequently, unmotivated and uninterested students often drop out or perform poorly in school.

10.The Idea that Every Child Must Go to College – The idea that every child must go to college definitely coalesces with Problem 9 as options are limited for students who do not fit the “college-bound” mold. It is this idea that ______’s “4 by 4” plan is based on. A student with no interest in going to college should not be mandated to take advanced math classes if the desired career pathway does not require these skills. The goal of going to college is set not by the students themselves, but instead by the state of ______, and a handful of teachers. The students may resent teachers and other authority figures for hailing the importance of college, as they may not understand that some students do not have the financial backing or family support to attend, or have other obligations after high school. The students will reject this goal of going to college, and having little options and support for different types of goal-setting, they remain disadvantaged and lack perspective as to what they wish to do in the future to gain financial independence.

Again, personal observations and opinions from no one. Just a young blogger who got a high school diploma through the Texas public school system, and got triggered listening to a venting friend.

Feel free to divulge your thoughts and share your experiences.


19 thoughts on “The Top Ten Things Public Schools Are Doing Wrong Regarding Students’ Motivation

    • Without revealing too much, I dated and lived with a high school teacher for a while. I felt bad for the kids. It seemed a good three days out of the school week was devoted to testing. And even scarier? The teachers’ passing scores were ranked. The teachers were competing with each other, and it seemed that if your scores weren’t on top, you wouldn’t get hired the next year. It was horrendously toxic, for all involved. And the school wonders why they may have good state test scores, but high school valedictorians end up taking remedial math, or drop out by the end of their first semester. It happens, and it’s sad.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Great post. In regard to #10, sending everyone to college has a tendency to “dumb down” college classes. I was surprised to learn how many classes at my college drop the worst score from four tests as well as hand out extra credit as if the instructor were a PEZ dispenser.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad I wasn’t the only one with this experience. Often I’m asked why I’m not in grad school or going to grad school. I don’t want to go into a long conversation about my fear that grad school will be just like undergrad, given that most everyone my age seems to be enrolled in grad school right now (I guess because it’s a requirement for a lot of jobs). Having been a clerical assistant in a grad school department during college, my impression was that indeed, it’s just as dumbed down as the bachelor’s program. Even though it was a private university, it seemed like a professor was committing a sin if he gave a kid a bad grade because that was what the student earned. In grad school, there’s a stigma attached to grades lower than an A. And I think some professors were pressured to give that to their students to avoid drama.

      I have a hard time believing that this is a nonexistent problem at even the most selective of institutions. I just foresee a lot of problems repeating themselves, but with a different backdrop.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I get it. I’m 43, and the only reason I am in college right now is because I need a stinking piece of paper to prove that I can write professionally. It doesn’t matter to employers how many times I’ve been published in the last fifteen years; I must have a sheet of paper with some fancy topography.

        Now, with the “send everyone to college and we’ll pay for it” attitude, it is only going to get worse.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Yep. I did enjoy talking with the older classmates when I was in college. I learned a lot from them about what to expect after graduating. I do not know where you live, but here the job search was interesting. I actually just left a job I had for a year and a half. It was more the silly issue of “You didn’t go to Harvard” that bothered me. It didn’t matter that I had published research. I guess I “don’t look good on paper” because of the alma mater. Also, I wasn’t enrolled in a Master’s or doctoral program while I worked, and that’s kind of a sign of sub-mediocrity in that setting. I think I’ll just proceed at my own pace.

        The experience made me feel so bad about myself and finicky about my abilities that I looked elsewhere for a different experience. I’m feeling so much better. I hope things work out for you too in all your professional endeavors.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Hola, and thank you for the like on my Storytime with John comment. I have just read this post of yours – you hit the nail on the head so many times. Now that “learning” appears to mean “learning content an d remembering it just long enough to pass the test” it is quite clear that “education” has lost the meaning it once had.
    Keep writing, and you have a new follower.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello!

      You are welcome, and thank you for reading and providing your input. I am absolutely appalled by the things described in that child’s testimony. They had to take diagnostics in kindergarten?! I think I took my first standardized test in third grade. I was at an overseas Department of Defense School, and I don’t remember it having any bearing other than serving as a point of comparison to how other third graders in the U.S. schools were doing. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be little and experience test taking anxiety. Didn’t really have that until 9th grade…


  3. I ain’t been to school for a long time. Is it really as you described? I know it’s competitive, and according to my grand kids it’s still boring as ****( respecting yer place) and they don’t use books now, so It is more difficult for some of the learning. I learn by reading and then writing it so it gets typed into my brain. Nice place BTW.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for stopping by and conversing with me!

      I graduated high school in 2009. Until my junior year of high school, the area I grew up in was largely rural. I remember many students in my high school who would have been the first to go to college, so there was a lot of emphasis on good grades and doing extracurricular activities so “you could get a scholarship.” Mind you, my high school had the mentality that every child MUST go to college, that gap years were “No-nos” and plumbers were trash (haha). My experience was that teachers based your worth on your standing in the class, and that dictated how much time they spent on you. Due to personal circumstances, I backed down from it and ended up going to a small college in the city.

      While the content wasn’t as demanding as it was in high school, and the school wasn’t at all prestigious, it was still pretty competitive. For a while you wonder what really constitutes an achievement and whether your achievement was something you “are supposed to do anyway” to get to the next step. In college I shuffled back and forth between law school and the PhD track (because my professors thought I wrote good research papers and I hung on their every word), got my thesis published along doctorates in a peer-reviewed journal, but so did a good five or six people in my class. It was…expected, I suppose.

      For now, I’m motivated to make myself happy. If I want to write, I’ll write. If I want to publish, I’ll publish. I just want some quiet.

      So they don’t use books now? What about e-books and reading off PDFs? I only ask because at my former job it was encouraged to read electronically as much as possible.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yeesh. I never got into the major competitiveness but that was at least in part due to a lack of presence on my part. I was usually legitimately sick (picked up a lot of random crap as a teen) tho I skipped a fair number of classes too, but I still did my work at home and turned it in. I remember my guidance counselor told me (after I’d still managed to get all As on my finals Sophomore year inc. foreign language) that I would have to repeat because of the number of days missed anyway so “you might as well just quit high school.” Our school had the highest district rating in the state and they didn’t want people like me to “bring the numbers down”. I figured my aptitude was proven despite the missed days, but guess not. Stunned me that was my guidance counselor!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pushing someone and trying to motivate them into pursing an education after HS is perfectly fine but they must help guide them into something realistic. I can’t comment on what education has been like over the last decade by during my teenage years to my mid 20’s I found an enormous amount of classmates that went to get college degrees in a field that they thought was cool or could make massive amounts of cash at. Most dropped out and are now either unemployed or working in a factory job somewhere still paying student loans. This leads to another topic of why “illegal immigrants” are taking up all the American construction trade jobs. People need to look in the mirror instead of pointing fingers. Why they were trying to become a marine biologist while living in Colorado the immigrant was getting a job as a laborer and learning the trade hands on. What makes more business savvy…..hire a 30 year old worker that has no experience asking for $ 20.00 an hour or hire someone the same age that’s been in the trade for 12 years asking for the same amount of money? Like I said another topic and I don’t mean to highjack your thread but points # 9 and # 10 are dead on.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s