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Cash for Good Grades? Some Schools Give It a Try

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By GreatSchools Staff

Weighing the Pros and Cons

As with any controversial issue, it's helpful to hear both sides of the story.

Arguments for:

  • Cash-for-grades programs may jump-start students' motivation by providing real-world rewards for their effort and performance. Proponents liken these rewards to an adult getting a raise or bonus for performing well on a job.
  • Advocates like Chicago mayor Richard Daley and Washington, D.C., school chancellor Michelle Rhee argue that these programs "level the playing field" for low-income kids, since middle- and upper-class families are able to offer their kids cash incentives for academic achievement. They say that for low-income students their situation calls for more drastic, less conventional measures. Many of these kids don't understand the value and power of education. They may have few adult role models - at home or in their community - who are successful as a result of getting a solid education. Inner-city kids must also resist the lure of gangs or committing crimes to make money. Their worldview may be limited to the "here and now in the 'hood" - and cash incentives may be an effective tool for getting their attention in school.
  • Students receive tangible rewards and reinforcement at frequent intervals, to maintain their motivation.
  • Some cash-incentive programs also encourage long-term effort and accountability. For example, a student earning an "F" is disqualified and must forfeit the rewards she's earned to date. And holding back a portion of a student's reward money until he graduates from high school may keep him focused on the larger goal.

Arguments against:

  • Simply offering financial incentives to students doesn't address the myriad factors that make up a quality education. Teacher training (and compensation), a solid curriculum, interesting electives, parental involvement, alternative programs, cultural awareness and community support all contribute to student success.
  • Students should only be rewarded for true achievement, not for simply showing up at school or taking a test.
  • Psychologists Bob Brooks and Sam Goldstein explain that research by Edward Deci and others shows most children are, by nature, motivated to learn."External motivators may be effective and well intended," Goldstein says, "but they clearly work against the continued development of a child's intrinsic (innate) motivation. Intrinsic motivation - participating at school for the sheer pleasure of learning - is soon eclipsed by the promise of external rewards, and a child's natural enthusiasm for learning may be dampened. It doesn't really teach kids the reward of learning for learning's sake."
    What, then, about at-risk students who struggle in school? Goldstein and Brooks go on to explain that our education system has determined that students who struggle need a greater degree of external motivation to stay engaged in academic tasks. Yet it is exactly these students whose intrinsic (natural) motivation must be nurtured and reinforced.
  • Teneh Weller, who operates the High Expectations Parental Service in the San Francisco Bay Area, admits that money motivates kids. "But, while it might re-ignite kids' motivation in the short term, we need to reinforce their intrinsic motivation to see lasting results," Weller says.
  • Even skeptics with no knowledge of research on motivation ask, "What happens when the reward is no longer offered? Do schools have to keep raising the stakes to keep students engaged?"

Comments from readers

"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."
"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."