Working Toward a Higher Motivation

Monetary rewards are not the only method that has been tried by education ministers in an effort to increase the matriculation eligibility rate.

For years successive education ministers have been trying to increase the percentage of high school graduates eligible for a full matriculation certificate. That rate is, in effect, the most popular index for measuring the education minister's performance. On Thursday, Or Kashti published an article in Haaretz that reveals another method for raising matriculation eligibility rates: monetary grants.

A study by Prof. Victor Lavy of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Prof. Joshua Angrist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that when students with particularly poor performances were promised NIS 6,000 if they passed their matriculation exams, they worked hard and performed well. The number of students in this group who earned matriculation certificates increased by about 20 percent. When the researchers did a follow-up a few years later they found that the percentage of students in this group who went on to higher education was about 30 percent higher than for the control group.

As usual in these parts, nay-sayers quickly appeared. Education Minister Yuli Tamir said that "giving money is extremely uneducational," while Dr. Nimrod Aloni of Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College said the experiment represented the vulgarization and "total commercialization of culture, of educational values and of the expansion of knowledge... If the motivation is to get the cookie at the end of the experiment, then it is total blindness to the essence of the educational process and to its fruits."

Where's the vulgarization and commercialization here? After all, people have always needed rewards and incentives. Even in cheder, in the Diaspora, when a boy read a page of Torah fluently, the melamed gave him a candy. And those who graduate high school with honors are rewarded with a ceremony as well as a prize from the school.

In the academic world, to which Aloni belongs, it is customary to award grants and scholarships. Students receive scholarships for excelling at their studies while teachers are given grants for successful research. Those who excel at music receive the Arthur Rubinstein Award, successful writers are given the Sapir Prize and talented journalists are awarded the Sokolow Prize. Is the writer who receives such a prize like a rat who gets "the cookie at the end of the experiment"? Does it damage the creative spirit?

When teachers speak of their status within society, they argue that their low salaries are proof of the low status accorded to their profession, and therefore demand raises. Aloni should tell them that this is "vulgarization and total commercialization" and that they should not demand filthy lucre, which destroys "the education process and its fruits."

Monetary rewards are not the only method that has been tried by education ministers in an effort to increase the matriculation eligibility rate. Amnon Rubinstein invented the "lottery system," which removed whole subjects from the examinations. Zevulun Orlev cut the amount of material by a third, using the "focus" system. Limor Livnat championed the "two exam date" method for math and English, and under Tamir the number of students given additional time and other adjustments due to "learning disabilities" increased markedly.

Compared to all these transparent tricks, the idea of giving cash rewards seems much fairer and more logical. It suits human nature. The fact is that in return for NIS 6,000 students devoted more time to studying for the exams and took part in more "study marathons," while the material itself remained unchanged, with no reductions or relaxation of requirements.

Thus, one can be a purist like Aloni, opposing any creative solution and continuing to live in a dream. But the monetary award improved the chances of weaker students for a better future and thereby increased social equality. To paraphrase a sentence from Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud: "Absorption in Torah, even for the wrong motives, may eventually lead to doing so with higher motives."