Recently there have been a number of articles, stories, and blogs in the media about the use of online credit recovery programs in public schools. Most report on the ease by which students can scam the system, and cheat their way to a credit. In very few of them do I read much about what is perhaps the key ingredient in student performance: motivation.
Most would probably agree that motivation comes in two modes: intrinsic and extrinsic. In the former, one is motivated to do something because they value the activity itself due to its being interesting or pleasurable. Extrinsic motivation is when the spur to action is some outside goal or reward or other outcome. Quite often our motivations involve a blending of the two. Indeed, the level of motivation can vary: we may play a round of golf because we inherently find the game a fun challenge: the winning of the side bet just gives us a little extra "push".
After 30 years in high school classrooms, I can tell you that student motivations cover the whole spectrum. Most students who do well have strong motivations: some are motivated by a healthy interest in the subject itself, others by a desire to make the honor roll. Those last two motivating factors may seem to some people as having equal value. However, the student is motivated to make the honor roll is most likely after a high grade: the student who is truly interested in the subject may earn a high grade, but to him/her, that is secondary.
When a failing student suddenly "turns it around", it usually involves a change in motivation: either the student discovers a true interest in the subject or a new external motivator came into play. (Such as the student who is offered a car at the end of the year if they make honor roll.)
Credit recovery systems as described in the media have a big problem: they use a system that can be very successful with intrinsically motivated students, but apply it to a group that is largely unmotivated or motivated by external factors. When a student with no interest in a subject, but is motivated to raise a grade and get that credit, that student can fall into the cheating game quite easily. It's not that they are bad kids or dishonest students, it's just that they see an opportunity to take an action for which they are motivated. (Sort of an attractive nuisance). Some articles report students actually googling the information thay need to pass a test or complete an assignment. We can condemn such actions if we wish, but most of us do not know how we would act should we be placed in the same situation.
I see the word "accountability" all over the place, but I think that misses the boat. The key to improving education is a greater understanding of student motivations so we can strengthen the healthy ones and minimize the effects of the not-so-healthy motivations. Motivations will never, and should never, disappear. They do need to be understood and that understanding needs to be utilized.