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Education: Much Ado About Golden Arches

The New York Times' article about McDonald's in Seminole County, Fla., rewarding local students with Happy Meals for academic achievement has certainly provoked much commentary. I wasn't sure if I would post on the topic, but after seeing that one of our own expert bloggers, Tom Stern, has already tackled the subject, I figured I might as well offer another point of view.

My first question: what's the fuss? The idea of local businesses offering products and services for students' academic achievement isn't new. The article states upfront that the Seminole County McDonald's program is replacing one sponsored by local Pizza Huts. And if you look through the article's comments, you'll read many accounts from readers with fond memories of similar programs in their school districts. The one legitimate complaint seems to be the report card jacket, which features photos of McDonald's menu items. While dressing up report cards as ads goes too far, it has nothing to do with the premise of rewards itself.

Also important to note, for all tempted to rail against the greed of corporate America, is that the sponsorship is local. Rather than a diabolical scheme hatched by central headquarters to "catch them young," the program is the effort of a group of business owners that want to encourage achievement in their area schools. Is that so awful?

The problem, of course, is that they happen to be McDonald's franchise owners. Ever since obesity has become a pressing issue, especially regarding children, the golden arches have been the symbol we love to hate. Critics have, expectedly, raised concern that the rewards program will promote unhealthy eating habits to children.

But wait a minute. The program is tied to the release of report cards, which would at most occur four times a year. Going to McDonald's four times a year doesn't come close to building unhealthy eating habits. I'm sure most parents treat their children with "junk food" more often than that. If parents reinforce the importance of healthy meals, the rewards program will have little chance of undermining their efforts. If not, then the rewards program is hardly the problem, is it?

Another, more fundamental issue that many who balk at the program have raised is that students should achieve for achievement's sake. Back in fifth grade, my teacher always told us that school was our job and grades were our pay. While I agree with the underlying sentiment behind this statement (and remain grateful to this day for Ms. Peoples!), the analogy doesn't quite hold up. Adults work for money, which affords them living essentials and, if they're lucky, extra amusements and luxuries. Almost no one works for work's sake; they do so for these essentials and rewards.

Students' grades, however, offer neither — they're living under their parents' roof and, likewise, Mom and Dad decide for the most part what amusements and luxuries they will have. While some students relish their lessons in school "just because," it's not really a natural inclination for most children after the novelty of K-2 wears off, and most of the rewards that result from education won't be seen for quite a while. That's why there's a need for an immediate incentive, which is usually provided by parents through love, encouragement, praise, and tangible rewards like allowances, presents, and, yes, special meals.

Some children, unfortunately, aren't given these incentives. And even when they are, it's clearly in the interest of a community to produce new generations of achievers. Whatever incentive community members can offer to see that happen, they most likely will offer it, especially in this high-stakes era of education. So rather than rail against another supposed instance of the commercialization of childhood (and an old-hat one, at that), we should be happy that business leaders in this community actually care about kids doing well in school. After all, McDonald's hardly needs special advertising.