03/02/2012 11:44 am ET Updated May 02, 2012

No Child Left Unmotivated

As an economist, viewing today's current educational debate can sometimes be puzzling. Reams of papers and voluminous amounts of air time are spent discussing the merits of school and teacher accountability, school vouchers, the proper level of school funding, and the role of religion in the classroom. Oddly, we discuss less often the single largest determinant of success in our school system: the incentives we give to motivate students. The unclear incentives given to students to seek out and attain the knowledge necessary for productive, high-paying jobs in our workforce creates some of the biggest negative effects on U.S. growth, competitiveness, and, in the end, social cohesion.

Simply put, in the student's eyes, our public education system often creates few positive incentives to motivate students to succeed, and fewer disincentives to motivate students not to fail. What positive incentives currently exist? Good grades on report cards, praise by parents and teachers, recognition given to high-achieving students, and an assertion that good grades will lead a student to a "better future" are among them. Unfortunately, students, especially adolescents, often respond little to these incentives. First, for many students, the connection between grades and the future is too vague or far off to be a principal motivator. Second, if one simply asks an average middle school student about his or her concerns, one will likely find out that social status and relationships occupy much more of the student's concerns than grades (or, by that matter, the approval of his or her parents). In modern schools, social status, in turn, often has little relationship with achievement -- most gifted students can attest to social pressures starting in elementary school against high achievement, whether it is expressed through social isolation, verbal intimidation, or physical bullying. Many schools go further by unintentionally supporting a school culture with little focus on achievement by excessive emphasis on school sports and star athletes.

Next, let's look at the disincentives to motivate students not to fail. These include bad grades, pressure from parents and teachers, and the threat that failure will put a student on a poor path for his or her future. What makes our system's disincentives even less motivating to students is that even if students responded to these incentives, we have stunted their effectiveness as our education system does little to place the responsibility of failure on the students. Thirty years ago, poor grades were a poor reflection on the student -- but now, they often are seen as a reflection on the parents, teacher, and school. To shield themselves from criticism, some schools have moved toward grade inflation, and, at the elementary level, simply promoting along low-performing students so that they can become the next school's problem.

How can we realign our system to motivate students to desire achievement and avoid failure? I believe the system must use incentives with teeth, incentives that students care about, and incentives that operate within the shorter-term timeframe within which students often think. First, schools must do more to influence student culture to value achievement -- and at the very least, prevent the social pressures that discourage it. One of the most common sense options is to extend the use of school uniforms to all grades and across all public school districts, regardless of income. Often, social cleavages and status are first shown through appearance, creating a new set of desires (outside of acquiring an education) for students.

Another possible option is to post student grades openly in the classroom, much like what is done in many European countries. Although this may be emotionally difficult for some students, it may also introduce competition at all levels of the student body to achieve. American schools could also mimic their European counterparts by requiring students to be verbally quizzed in front of the class on at least a quarterly basis.

A third option is to give additional social incentives for students in the top 10% or 20% of their class, like additional vacation days, special outings and after-school events, cafeteria privileges, relaxed dress code standards, leadership roles in the student body, and additional privileges to choose their classes.

A fourth option is to raise the minimum standards necessary to participate in sports, and to provide more equity between recognition of academic and athletic achievements.

Next, schools could provide more differentiated classes early on -- with ample opportunity to move between tracks, and a wider array of choices for students who perform well -- helping high-achieving students advance more quickly and develop a self-supporting social network, while providing lower-achieving students more personal attention from teachers. Later on, school districts could pool resources to create additional magnet middle and high schools based on student interest, while also providing vocational schools for those who do not want to pursue a college preparatory education.

Lastly, schools and parents alike can better disincentivize failure by creating real consequences for it -- whether this is expanded mandatory after-school study halls, reducing the ability of a student to socialize during the school day, or, if the funds exist, a boarding school option for students at risk of failing out of school.

With a better understanding of what motivates students, we can help our educational system to regain the dynamism it once had -- and help U.S. workers become more competitive on the world stage.