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Class Notes
Capitalism in the classroom
(Published October 7, 2002)


What would you do if you knew you could not fail?

Pause for a moment to answer this for yourself. What places would you visit, which challenges might you confront, what dreams would you pursue, if success were guaranteed?

This question is written in block letters on a poster above my classroom door. It is a message of inspiration I hope students carry with them as they leave.

So on the first day of the school year, when each student writes a paragraph about one classroom decoration, the comments of an 11th-grade girl caught me by surprise: "If I knew that I could not fail, I wouldn't come to school. I wouldn't do any homework, and I definitely wouldn't study at all, 'cause I couldn't fail."

She did have a point - one that had not even occurred to me - and certainly not the message I had intended to convey.

Inspiring in students a love of learning and a commitment to hard work is certainly one of the most important, and most difficult, tasks charged to teachers. Motivation is an oft-cited cause for many of the problems in inner-city schools. If only students were motivated, we lament, then they would be well-behaved, then they would complete all of their homework, then they would study for their exams. Alas, without motivation, academic excellence will be only a fantasy.

Though we often speak of motivation as an innate personality trait, in fact, dedication, persistence and diligence are cultivated as much as they are in-born. So the important question is, what can educators do to instill in students a rigorous work ethic? Certainly it will take more than a few catch phrases tacked to the wall.

One motivational tactic some teachers adopt is that of the tyrant, implanting in students a mortal fear of the wrath that will follow their every transgression. The threat of punishment and verbal rebuke deters would-be troublemakers, and fear compels everyone to stay on tip-top behavior.

At the other end of the spectrum is the teacher who motivates by sheer moral persuasion. Like a fiery preacher at the pulpit, this teacher may convince students to reform their ways through impassioned arguments for exemplary discipline.

Finally, students may be motivated if they can laugh and have fun in the classroom. The teacher as entertainer uses humor and games to disguise learning as simple enjoyment.

To be effective at motivating as a tyrant, preacher or entertainer requires exceptional performance skills. As a young new teacher, I knew that my powers of oratory and showmanship would not carry me far, so I needed another channel for inspiring students - one that would not fail me on the days when my enthusiasm faltered or my spirits were dampened.

The method I eventually adopted (not on the first try) is Classroom Capitalism.

In economics, capitalism is founded on the principle that the optimum society will be achieved when individuals are given the maximum freedom to pursue their own financial goals. People are selfish, and if the rewards for labor are returned to the individual, productivity will be maximized.

In the classroom, capitalism dictates that the best education will be achieved when each student tries to maximize learning for him or herself. Some measure of acquired knowledge is needed, and the currency by which we gauge learning in the classroom is grades.

In the end, every student would like to have good grades. As much as they might forget homework, come to class tardy or refuse to take notes, no child - given the choice at the end of the quarter - would give up the chance to have straight As on their report card.

Laziness and poor behavior result not from disinterest in grades, but rather from a student's failure to see the connection between actions and consequences. Report cards are issued once every 10 weeks. Why worry about something that won't become a problem until over two months from now? Much better to focus on more immediate issues: the upcoming athletic competition, that cute student on the other side of the room or the latest gossip about last weekend's party. When the carrot is placed too far away, the horse quickly loses interest.

Every teacher gives grades, according to some system outlined in their syllabus. What distinguishes Classroom Capitalism from a conventional grade book is the insistence on rigorous accounting. Every student must know at all times exactly what his or her grade is in the course. This is not an easy request to fill, since it requires a straightforward grading system that is clear, consistent and fair.

In my own class, each student calculates a daily Effort grade (out of 100 points) based on a simple formula encompassing promptness, participation and homework. At the end of the week, students average their daily grades into a weekly Effort grade. This Effort grade - along with weekly Test, Essay and Lab grades - are entered on a Grade Sheet that each student keeps in a notebook.

At any time, students can average their grades to date and calculate the current grade for the course. The syllabus clearly states that, at the end of the quarter, the final grades will be calculated based on the formula written on the Grade Sheet. There is no mystery about the process-to receive a grade, a student must earn the required number of points.

To reform a spendthrift's wasteful shopping habits, he must be forced to keep a carefully balanced checkbook. Similarly, students must keep accurate accounts of their own progress in a course so that they know that missing a homework assignment or coming in late or forgetting to answer a test question will not just earn a teacher's reprimand but will also affect that final average on the report card. Only when students see a direct connection between their behavior today and the grade assigned at the end of the quarter can a teacher use grades as a lever to ratchet up student motivation.

This week, halfway through the first quarter, my students' parents will receive in the mail a progress report of all of their son or daughter's science grades to date. Some parents may be disappointed or angered by a less-than-stellar report, but it comes as no surprise for the students - these are the same grades they have been keeping on their own Grade Sheet since the beginning of the quarter. They know what is needed to raise the grade, and simple self-interest is enough to provide the motivation for improvement.


Wulsin is a second-year chemistry and physics teacher at the H.D. Woodson Academy of Finance and Business. Please send stories, comments, or questions to

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator