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Opinion: Cash for Cans for Credit

3 mins read

With M-A’s Canned Food Drive drawing to a close, teachers are beginning to dole out their annual heaps of extra credit and other academic rewards, which incentivize participation in the drive. On the surface, it seems like everyone wins — students get a few bonus points for contributing, and the Canned Food Drive brings in thousands of cans and dollars for local families. But upon further examination, there may be some underlying flaws that make this system less than perfect.

cans-1In a school with incredible socioeconomic diversity, receiving extra credit in exchange for money seems like a slippery slope that we may want to avoid. For the same number of extra credit points, one student could go home and ask their parents for a generous check, while another might have to spend hours canning or raising money. In effect, some students can buy their grades, or at least a grade boost, which creates a distorted academic dynamic and distracts from the true purpose of the Canned Food Drive. When teachers go beyond just a few points, offering significant grade increases or canceling finals, it seems that the students who already have plenty of advantages can easily get yet another grade boost, which widens the gap that M-A is trying so hard to shrink. As the class works together to reach their goals, it can become exceedingly clear who has money and, in turn, who does not. Obviously, the Canned Food Drive and the incentives teachers offer are not inherently flawed; however, in a school where sensitive issues around socioeconomics and academic success do exist, it’s important to be aware of our actions and what exactly their ramifications may be.

The system also relies on a disappointing underlying assumption that students will not participate unless they are offered some external reward. Fortunately, when we look at classes that bring in large numbers of cans, this moral implication may not always be true. Last year, John Florio’s 3rd-period Russian History class brought in the second largest number of cans despite a complete lack of academic incentivization. This year, Lisa Otsuka’s AP Literature class is in the lead thus far. Otsuka offers no extra credit or other incentives, yet her students are still motivated to sign up for canning shifts and contribute to the cause.

Alex Thayer, a senior at M-A who is deeply involved in the Canned Food Drive thinks that “students should be intrinsically motivated to participate,” and the success of classes like the ones mentioned above implies that, actually, students are. By offering extra credit in exchange for canning, teachers may actually have a counterproductive effect on their students’ drive to donate or participate in charitable events. By replacing this intrinsic motivation with extrinsic rewards, we may be creating a “what’s in it for me?” mindset that didn’t previously exist.

Sophia Bercow, a recent graduate who ran the 2015 Canned Food Drive, feels that “while it ultimately benefits the people in need, [teachers offering extra credit] defeats the purpose of what the drive is all about. This is a time for people to want to give back, not a time for people to do something because they want to benefit themselves.” If students don’t actually need external motivation to participate, then offering it can only distract from the actual purpose of the Canned Food Drive, and can warp students’ understanding of the beauty of giving back.


M-A’s Canned Food Drive is a wonderful thing — it invites students to get involved in their community, benefits local families, and generates school spirit and excitement for helping people. At the end of the day, if teachers want to offer a few extra credit points to students who go the extra mile, going canning for hours and contributing to this cause, that’s not a terrible thing. Maybe it gives the small initial push to get students out there or brings attention about the Drive to underclassmen who aren’t familiar with it.

But when these incentives become so extreme that they distort the charitable spirit or create rifts in classrooms around socioeconomics, they’ve been taken too far. Ultimately, I have faith that M-A students will continue to participate actively in the Canned Food Drive whether or not they are offered extra credit for doing so. As we look to the future, I believe we should rely more on students’ intrinsic motivation and desire to contribute, moving away from an expectation of academic rewards.

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