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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 12/17/2010

The carrot, the stick ... or something else?

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Sean Slade, director of Healthy School Communities, part of the Whole Child Initiative at ASCD, an educational leadership organization.

By Sean Slade
A study on chronic student truancy that was generally ignored by the news media concluded that punishing parents when their children skip school -- an idea under discussion in some places -- is counterproductive.

“Hauling parents into family court is not the best way to combat a rising tide of kids who chronically miss school," it says.

Chronic truancy has been long hailed as a key indicator of other youth risk-taking behavior, including drug and alcohol abuse, and an indicator of a host of social, emotional, and mental health issues.

According to one article on the subject, Professor Robert Balfanz at Johns Hopkins University said his research has shown that about half of truant students just decide to skip school, a quarter are avoiding something negative such as a bully, and another quarter stay out for life issues such as work or babysitting. He went on to say that schools need to find ways to reengage these chronically truant students.

To paraphrase Balfanz, a “stick” approach to the problem did not help. Students were absent primarily because school wasn’t engaging enough, or because they felt unsafe, or because they lacked resources to allow them to attend.

But take a step back. The carrot or the stick analogy refers to making someone do something they don’t want to do. It’s about making a mule move and, hence, pull a cart. We want fast, easy answers, so we resort to hitting with a stick or luring with a carrot. We talk about punishing parents. Or we pay students for grades.

The real questions are why we demean education with both approaches, and why learning has become such a chore. The 2010 High School Survey of Student Engagement found that 49 percent of students surveyed said they were “bored every day.” A staggering 17 percent of the 42,000 students surveyed said they were “bored in every class.”

Rather than trying to find new and better carrots and sticks to force or bribe students to pay attention and do their work, why don’t we look instead at what and how we are trying to teach them?

Maybe a starting point for engaging students shouldn’t be discussing how can we make them do what they don’t want to do but rather what we can do to make education more engaging.


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 17, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Learning, Sean Slade  | Tags:  chronic truancy, paying for grades, sean slade, student truancy, truancy  
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Next: Will firing 5-10 percent of teachers make us Finland?


Great article. Neither the carrot nor the stick are assurances of anything with students. I think the breakdown of reasons behind truancy begs more review. When students "just decide to skip school" are they saying they are bored or lost?

At some point we stopped requiring mastery of a subject over the idea of expediency. Having 4th and 5th graders involved with Algebra is not productive or engaging students. Many still cannot count by various groupings (by 2s, 5s, 10s, etc.) Many cannot understand or divide large numbers (yeah just give them a calculator.) Those little drills instilled experience in kids who could then at least make an estimate of the quantity.

Reading is an afterthought. Consider we have news 24/7, televised government and reruns all day and night, and scientific shows. Why read? I can get a DVD somewhere that will tell me what I want to know. Someone will tell me what I need to know.

We need to review two things to at least try and get kids engaged; relevancy and capability.

Many kids cannot see the relevance between science and real life (an example would be making bread, pickling vegetables, etc.) They cannot read/measure quantities for ingredients, or understand the relationship of 1/4th cup and how many it takes to fill a cup.

How would they decide the number of tiles needed for a 12x16 room, shingles required for a roof, or concrete for a standard driveway (if it exists.)

The other is to abolish age based progression. It undermines learning and ability. One size does not fit all, and all do not fit in one area. I would rather have a 20 year old high school graduate at a ceremony than a 20 year old dropout in court.

Posted by: educ8er | December 17, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Also think this article is great and hits on a very fundamental issue, the carrot and stick approach.

Related to educ8er's comment, and my own experience with individualized education, I think that not only relevance, but meaning has to enter into the mix. A 4th or 5th grader is just beginning to make sense of a larger world, and algebra is probably not the subject to help him/her find meaning in that stage of life when other questions are on his mind. Real-life math is of greater concern: stuff costs; is the student getting an allowance, where are the parents in the socio-economic neighborhood, how important are Brand-name
tennis shoes, how do tv commercials influence kids to want/buy/harangue their parents for stuff they don't need......many, many meaningful questions that relate to an appropriate-aged math.

Human lessons: Myths from all over the world have powerful lessons to teach, and they bridge the world between the very young child and the pre-adolescent; opening other worlds that one can read, write, discuss about, illustrate, stimulate the imagination........

Many really good teachers I know have already done the kind of things I've written above, and they valiantly keep trying to do them against the crushing tides of test prep.

What's Important?

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 17, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

This is such a difficult issue. It starts young. Forty years ago,as a struggling first grade teacher, I received a great piece of advice from a retired teacher: "At the end of the day, do something to make the 'pupils' want to come back tomorrow." For the rest of my teaching career, I tried to follow that advice. I doubt I was always successful. If all teachers tried this, I think we would get a few more students to school. It must start with the young child. We must develop habits.

I do not have an answer for the child who is kept home to baby-sit, etc. But I do know that if a child wants to go to school, he is more likely to get there despite problems at home.

Another piece of advice: "You cannot give a child self-esteem; you must help them build it."

Posted by: mmkm | December 17, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

Sigh. The carrot and stick approach does NOT mean offering some carrot or beating with a stick. It means dangling the carrot from a stick in front of the balky mule, urging him to walk continuously toward a carrot he will never reach. It's really a useful figure of speech, but it will be lost if everyone persists in confusing it with "Walk softly and carry a big stick."

Posted by: bhorn1 | December 18, 2010 12:46 AM | Report abuse

Sigh. The carrot and stick approach does NOT mean offering some carrot or beating with a stick. It means dangling the carrot from a stick in front of the balky mule, urging him to walk continuously toward a carrot he will never reach. It's really a useful figure of speech, but it will be lost if everyone persists in confusing it with "Speak softly and carry a big stick."

Posted by: bhorn1 | December 18, 2010 12:46 AM | Report abuse

We have created cookie-cutter education--all students must learn exactly the same things. We've taken away electives. We teach to the test. We've "raised the bar," making classes harder than ever. Kindergartners no longer learn through play--they have daily homework. We've made all these changes to "improve" education, and in the process we've alienated vast numbers of students, who now skip school and drop out in record numbers. Society's fear has destroyed their joy. The "reforms" (promulgated by non-educators) are not only NOT working (achievement gap still exists, international test scores are still embarrassing, etc.), they are making things worse. Could we please back away from preparing every child for college and return to helping every child discover their path and develop their potential, even if it's not "academically rigorous"?

Posted by: pattipeg1 | December 18, 2010 7:32 AM | Report abuse

Except that...
"here’s what the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary has to say on the subject: “carrot, sb. Add: 1. a. fig. [With allusion to the proverbial method of tempting a donkey to move by dangling a carrot before it.] An enticement, a promised or expected reward; freq. contrasted with “stick” (=punishment) as the alternative.”

Posted by: arlington101 | December 18, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse

@pattipeg1 - my sentiments exactly. Think you've depicted the craziness in the current education priorities very succinctly.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 18, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

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