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Cash for Good Grades? Some Schools Give It a Try

Some public schools are paying students to succeed in school. Is this approach effective? Is it ethical?

By GreatSchools Staff

It used to be that earning an "A" was enough of a reward for doing well in school. Today, in an effort to boost achievement, some schools give students (especially those at risk for low achievement) gift cards or high-tech gadgets. And in a surprising trend, some are rewarding students with cash.

Public schools across the country are experimenting with incentive programs. In urban districts and rural outposts, some schools reward students who earn higher test scores and grades. Rewarding students' efforts and achievement with gold stars and token prizes is, of course, nothing new. Paying them in cash is another matter.

What's the short-term impact of these cash-incentive programs on student motivation, grades and test scores? Will this approach engage students in learning for the long haul?

Urban Initiatives for Education Reform

Some cash-incentive programs target low-income and minority students - kids who are underachieving and who are at risk of school failure. Many of these students aren't on track to graduate from high school, much less go on to college. Three of the most-publicized programs are:

  • New York City's Spark program (now in its second year), awards fourth- and seventh-graders cash for high achievement on a series of math and reading tests throughout the year. A fourth-grader can earn up to $250 a year, while a seventh-grader can earn up to $500.
  • Washington, D.C.'s Capital Gains program gives middle school students cash rewards for performance in five areas: attendance, behavior and three academic measures, such as completing homework and earning high grades (these determined by individual schools).
  • The Paper Project in Chicago encourages ninth and 10th-grade students in 25 high schools to earn better grades and pass their classes. Every six weeks successful students receive half of their reward money as a check or bank deposit; the other half is awarded to them upon graduation from high school. While the average student earns $800 in reward money per year, a very successful student can earn up to $2,000. Participating banks that receive the deposits offer to teach kids how to manage their accounts.

While these programs are offered at different school levels, all were designed by Dr. Roland Fryer, an economics professor at Harvard University's Education Innovation Laboratory and his team. Fryer makes it clear that these financial-incentive programs are experimental and are not intended to be the total solution to improving student achievement. After the initial experimental years, he and his team will analyze the program results. From there, they'll develop additional innovations that are scalable and evidence-based - and in keeping with the overarching goal of improving academic achievement.

It's important to note that these incentive programs are not funded by taxpayer dollars. Support comes from foundations and other private funders.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

04/23/2009:
"Extrinsic rewards in an effort to modify behavior work; however, can schools generalize these rewards to more intrinsic ones. In other words, can we jump start a kid to do better by paying him. Once, he does better, he will probably be happy that he is getting complements from family and teachers. He will understand more, participate more, and may start to have enough knowledge to wonder why? He'll ask questions because his curiosity and state of arousal are increased. Now, he is apt to do better because he has learned to enjoy learning: he gets an instrinsic reward for learning (gets better grades, improves behavior--wants to attend to the teacher. If operant conditioning such as these type of reward programs can do that, they will have been worth the small expense at the outset."
04/21/2009:
"I think giving things for getting good grades is a bad idea. What are you going to do next give them money for fixing their bed or cleaning their rooms or doing dishes. I think only things above and beyond should be paid for. If i say 'Gosh i would like to wash my car but I'm so tired.' And the child say 'Hey i can do that' I'll pipe in if you do a good job I'll pay you for it. If I want the fence painted and my 15yr old say 'I can do that' I'll pay him. But normal keeping up the house i don't pay for, doing school work. that is expected if he doesn't make an effort to get reasonable grades he's punished."
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