Skip to Content

Cash for Grades?

Privately funded programs try paying students to boost achievement.

By Mary Ellen Flannery

Do you really get what you pay for? At the shoe store, yes. But when it comes to paying kids for grades, probably not – especially if what you’re trying to buy is a life-long love of learning.

Long a tactic of fed-up parents, the idea of paying for good grades has migrated from the family room to the school house. In states ranging from Texas to Massachusetts, a growing number of students are pocketing cold cash for good grades or test scores on Advanced Placement and SAT exams, typically through privately funded programs.

In Houston, a three-month-old, privately funded $1.5 million program will reward fifth-graders – and, notably, their parents – when they master basic math standards. Each family stands to earn $1,050, not a small amount, especially in a community where 80 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Meanwhile, down the road, more than 10,000 Dallas students have earned up to $400 for taking and passing Advanced Placement tests in a newly expanded $1.5 million program funded by a private foundation.

It makes sense to some. Says Stacey Priestley, a northern Indiana teacher: “My son gets money for grades. We tell him going to school and getting good grades is his job. If he does his job well, he gets paid just like a job in the real world.”

But most Americans, and many educators, still feel uncomfortable with the idea. According to the most recent national Phi Delta Kappa poll, one out of four Americans say students should be paid for their grades. There’s something about the practice that just feels… wrong. Isn’t there greater value in reading a good book than a certificate for cheese pizza?  Isn’t education cheapened when its sum value is a remote chance at a limo ride? (Yes, some schools offer limo rides as incentives, as shown below in the video excerpt from the Freakonomics movie.)

Many teachers also say paying students for grades leads to practical problems in their classrooms, including pressure to inflate grades and conflict with students and parents. In Kentucky, where the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship provides up to $500 in state lottery revenues to kids with all A’s, parents “rip teachers” when their kid gets a C, says teacher Chris Spoonamore.

But the bigger question is: Does it even work?

While proponents hope those millions will help close achievement gaps, especially in poor communities where a dollar really makes a difference, research shows that the money might better be spent on the kinds of things we know can help improve student achievement, like teacher training and smaller class sizes.

Rewarding Whom?

Barbara Marinak, an assistant professor of education at Penn State University, says the research on monetary rewards is quite clear: They don’t work. “Any type of ‘extrinsic’ reward, by and large, undermines motivation,” she told National Public Radio last year.

Similarly, Alfie Kohn, the author of Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s and Other Bribes, says the bigger the reward, the bigger the damage done.

Especially when it comes to creative work, research shows that money doesn’t work – in fact, it probably deters achievement in the long run. Moreover, any kind of extrinsic reward can be dangerous. In a well-known Stanford University experiment, more than three decades old, researchers divided preschoolers into two groups: one that would get gold stars for their drawings and one that would not. Both drew enthusiastically, but when asked to draw again – without a reward – the gold-star group cut its drawing time in half. It appeared as if they’d lost enthusiasm for the task when it didn’t come with a reward.

“What we really want is for people to value the activity of learning,” University of Rochester professor Edward Deci told TIME magazine. And, other research, with young students and teenagers, show that they all perform better and work harder when the task is interesting, fun to do, and relevant to their lives.

“There has to be intrinsic motivation,” says Kentucky’s Spoonamore.

More recently, Harvard economist Roland Fryer, Jr., ran a $6.3 million experiment involving 18,000 students in Washington, D.C., New York, Dallas and Chicago. In each city, the incentives looked different – with varying results. In New York, where kids were paid for good test scores, and in Chicago, where they were paid for good grades, achievement didn’t budge.

But in D.C., where kids were rewarded for a variety of tasks, including earning good grades, attending class and completing homework, some kids did marginally better on reading comprehension tests. And in Dallas, where kids got $2 for each book they read – more books were read, and reading comprehension scores significantly improved.

The difference? Simply playing kids for good grades or test scores doesn’t actually give them any more skills, Fryer theorized. The system needs to be more complicated – and more specific to the needs of children – to be effective.

Similarly, a growing program of rewarding kids for passing Advanced Placement tests also has a teacher training component. The National Math and Science initiative, which has poured millions of dollars into seven states, rewards both students and teachers up to $100 for each passing score, and it provides professional development for teachers. In Mashpee, Massachusetts, the local union agreed that its members should accept the financial incentive — and that money is collected in an account for teacher supplies and additional training.

A recent study showed that AP enrollment in those places is up, but it’s also increasing in many schools and districts without rewards as well. Said one Mashpee student to The Cape Cod Times, “"I think I'd just try my best anyway…(The class) is kind of a challenge, but it's a fun class because (our teacher) makes it fun.”


Published in:

Published In