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I like to read. I’m not sure why you would want to reward children for reading, unless you aimed to communicate in some relentlessly effective way that it’s not an intrinsically worthwhile activity.

Let’s take running, swimming, or cycling. I do all three and more for relaxation, fun, meditation, good health. I enjoy these activities. If I didn’t, I would certainly find something else to do with my time and energy.

Rewards are nice. I like it when I win a ribbon at a race. I log my runs when I prepare for a race. The log keeps me focused, makes sure I run enough to prepare, helps me formulate simple, flexible training plans on the fly. But if the AARP came up to me and said, “We’d like to pay you to run. You win races in your age group, and we’ll make you a model for old people.” I don’t know what I’d say to that. A lot of people like to maintain a distinction between their professional activities and their non-professional activities. Getting paid to run would be a change of profession.

Now imagine we say to a child, “We’d like to pay you to play. We want to make you a model child, who goes to the playground and runs from one playset to the next.” The child might kind of wonder what’s going on. Why would grownups want to pay me for something I would do anyway? A child doesn’t make a distinction between professional and non-professional activities. It’s a good thing they don’t. A child would likely take the money. Why not?

Now we come around to reading. The rewards we give to children usually don’t involve money. Nevertheless, there’s a general atmosphere in school and at home that reading requires some kind of reward, or you won’t do it. We have too many distractions around, television foremost among them. A million other activities, including eating, shopping, talking with friends, and homework are up there with television to compete for our time. Except for homework, which involves a lot of reading, parents sense these other activities should not win the competition. They appear less worthy than reading. They should not push reading out.

“Why do you read?”

“Well, I read because the teacher gives me a gold star for every book I check out of the library.”

“Is that so. Do you read those books you check out of the library?”

“Of course not.”

“Why don’t you read those books?”

“Then I wouldn’t have time to read my own books.”

“Why do you like your books better?”

“Nobody says I gotta read ’em, of course!”

“You could just skip the gold star books and save some trouble.”

“Yeah, but then I wouldn’t get the recognition.”

“What do you mean?”

“When you get enough stars, you get your name on a plaque in the trophy case.”

“That must be something. How many names are on the plaque?”

“I donno. Coupla hunderd, maybe. It’s a big plaque.”

“How many of those students do you suppose just checked out books until they had enough stars to get on the plaque.”

“Prob’ly all of ’em.”

“All of them! What’s the use of an honor like that?”

“It’s not the honor. It’s the recognition. People know you’re up there.”

“Who cares? What does it say at the top? Checked out most books from the library?”

“I don’t think people really care what it says. They want to see their name etched in gold.”

Meantime they’re all watching TV or reading comic books.

“Look, the library has to get its funding somehow.”

How do you mean?

“Well, it calculates a checkout ratio. That’s the number of checkouts per month divided by the number of books on the shelves. The higher that ratio, the more money the library gets from the school district.”

So the school doesn’t really care whether you read the books.

“Uh uh.”

They want to increase their checkout ratio, and they give out gold stars to make it happen.

“It works really well. Last year we were first in the district.”

Do the other schools have gold star programs?

“Nobody else has thought of it, and we sure don’t tell ’em.”

Doesn’t it sort of set a bad example, when students know their teachers are gaming the district’s budget decisions?

“The students are in on it, too.”

Yes, but the teachers set the program up. They’re the leaders.

“Sure, but we get the dollars.”

And students who check out books for the right reasons have fewer books.

“They’re just suckers.”


“Because they didn’t figure out how to game the system!”

Who figured out the gold star program at your school?

“The principal.”


“What do you mean?”

It starts at the top.