My View                                                  Pages 16-17


Reversing the Downslide

of Student Enthusiasm 



It is difficult to imagine a day when U.S. high schools graduate almost every student ready for college or a career that pays a living wage. That’s because for every year students are in school, fewer and fewer of them desire to be there. The love of school diminishes with each passing year, going from almost 100 percent who love being in kindergarten to about a third who feel the same way about 9th grade.

I recently asked about 2,000 elementary and secondary school teachers in my seminars to indicate the grade level they teach and the percentage of students who they believe love school at their grade level. These are the results by grade level: kindergarten, 95 percent love school; 1st grade, 90 percent; 2nd grade, 82 percent; 3rd grade, 76 percent; 4th grade, 74 percent; 5th grade, 65 percent; 6th grade, 55 percent; 7th grade, 51 percent; 8th grade, 48 percent; 9th grade, 37 percent; 10th grade, 39 percent; 11th grade, 40 percent; and 12th grade, 45 percent.

The first question someone asks about this finding is, “Why is the high school percentage increasing?” I offer three hypotheses: (1) students see the “light at the end of the tunnel,” (2) students are taking more electives in the subjects that interest them, and (3) the data do not account for dropouts. Teachers answer my attitude question based on the students who are in their classroom, not all the young people in their community who may have departed before graduation.

Tangible Incentives
Instinctively, educators become defensive when they see these data and want to blame society, teen hormones or kids themselves. Blaming hormones is actually humorous — it would mean 39 percent of the students do not have hormones. Further, if society is to blame, why did society send to school 5-year-olds who are full of enthusiasm?

If students are the problem, maybe as they get older, they want adults to think they hate everything. However, when we disaggregate data, students clearly tell us which subjects they enjoy and which ones they detest.

A major reason for this loss of enthusiasm is educators do exactly what they have been instructed to do. Educators have been told over and over it is their job to motivate students. This motivation comes in the form of bribes. In elementary schools, students receive incentives in the form of stickers, new erasers, more recess time and popcorn parties. In secondary schools, they are offered food, videos and extra-credit grades. By my estimate, a typical student receives over 10,000 incentives over 13 years of schooling (5 times a day ˜ 180 days ˜ 13 years). These incentives occur at the same time the students are losing enthusiasm.

So if the use of tangible incentives or extra credits to motivate students is not working, what should educators do? Students come to us in kindergarten motivated to learn. The job for educators is to maintain that enthusiasm, and if it is lost, to restore enthusiasm to its kindergarten level. The educator should not ask, “What can I do to motivate these students?” Rather, the question is “What is causing this decline in enthusiasm for school?” Once we determine the root causes of enthusiasm loss, we need to address them.

In his book Drive, author Daniel Pink writes: “If at age fourteen or forty-three, we’re passive and inert, that’s not because it’s our nature. It’s because something flipped our default setting.” When students are passive and inert, we ought to determine what did the flipping.

Facial Expressions
Some will counter this view, pointing to studies that show incentives work. They are right. Incentives do work in the short term, but as documented by years of research by Edward Deci, author of Why We Do What We Do, incentives demotivate in the long term. In other words, we can gain a short-term boost in enthusiasm with incentives, but when the bribes are removed, motivation drops lower than it was before the first incentive.

High schools that are serious about creating more college- and career-ready graduates should pay attention to student attitude. I suggest an annual “happy face survey,” perhaps a scanning sheet with four headings — happy face, straight face, sad face and N/A. (The last response is intended for students when they aren’t enrolled in a particular course.) The form will list all school subjects along with the four responses.

Then the school district ought to establish a policy of formal listening to students and their parents. Graduating students ready for their next steps is possible, but only if much of the intrinsic motivation they bring with them to kindergarten can be maintained.

Lee Jenkins, a former superintendent, manages the consulting firm L to J Consulting in Scottsdale, Ariz., E-mail:



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