Improvement vs. Mastery

As you all know, Reach’s program model consists of three components: training, tutoring, and compensation. Currently, I’m working on the creation of our compensation system. In this exercise, it has helped to revisit the different evaluation systems I have encountered in my professional career, both in social work and in education. 
In social work, progress is often measured by looking at improvement (though some would argue we rarely measure anything effectively). For example, if presented with an acutely depressed client, a clinician would consider it a moderate success if the client began attending treatment, trusting the clinician, and voicing a desire to feel better. In education, imagine a student who was functionally illiterate and often truant. If this student began attending school regularly, asked a teacher for help, and began voicing a desire to learn, all our official measures (grades and standardized tests) would still consider this student a failure.
For this reason, I think so many of our current “motivational programs” miss the mark. If a student has a chronic truancy problem, is it realistic to offer a reward for perfect attendance?Or, if a student has experienced long-term academic failure, does it make sense to offer a reward for each A earned? I would argue no.
As we develop our system, we have to look at each metric we value (attendance, punctuality, grades, standardized test scores, and work performance), then we must consider how to best encourage improvement. As we know from Vygotsky, pushing for mastery may not be realistic or motivational. Let’s use attendance as an example. We have three options. Students could start at the highest compensation figure, then be fined for each absence. Students could start with a base level of pay and receive a sizable bonus for perfect attendance. Or, students could start with a base level of pay and receive a small bonus each day they attend school. We choose the third option.
Similarly, we can provide bonuses for improvement in GPA when compared to the previous semester. Or, we can provide bonuses for percentile improvements on standardized tests when compared to the previous year. It is through rewarding improvement, not mastery, that we will be able to motivate students that have significant academic skill gaps.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
PS – The previously mentioned announcement has been postponed until Monday. My apologies.
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