Should You Pay for Grades?

By Ann Dolin | Motivation

Sep 10

Just last week I had a parent ask me about the best ways to motivate her 9th grade daughter. Sheila was exasperated. She’d tried everything to get her daughter to care about her grades – from rewarding with prizes to punishing. The only thing she hadn’t tried was paying for report card grades. She said her friends did it regularly and their kids seemed to be motivated. Sheila was open to anything that might help to turn her daughter around.

Her quandary isn’t a unique one nor is the practice of paying for grades. The Washington DC area is no doubt a highly competitive place to live and we have many students who thrive in our fast paced lifestyle. But we also have some students who happily take the “path of least resistance”. These are the kids who do the bare minimum to get by.

So the question is – should parents pay their kids to get good report card grades? And is this practice an effective motivator?

Here’s the Skinny:

Over the years, research studies have shown that in order for rewards to work they must be immediate and consistent. Based on the research, paying for report card grades is not a good idea because the reward is too far away. Students who struggle to stay motivated on a day-to-day basis certainly aren’t going to muster up enough energy to sustain their best effort for an entire nine week quarter.

I would also argue that many students truly do not know what it takes to earn top grades. They often lack appropriate study skills and struggle to stay organized and manage their time effectively. It’s unrealistic to expect an underperforming student to miraculously turn their academic career around with the lure of a dollar.

What the Research Says – This is VERY Interesting!

Richard Fryer, an economist at Harvard, was compelled to solve the achievement gap. He wondered if rewarding kids for grades could make a difference in standardized test scores. He created four reward schemes in four different cities for a one year period. Here’s what he did and what he found out:

New York City: Students were paid for higher standardized test scores. There was no effect on performance.

Chicago: Students were paid for higher grades. Interestingly, attendance records and grades improved, but standardized test scores did not go up.

Washington DC: Students were paid for good attendance, refraining from fighting, and other good behaviors. There was only a modest improvement on test scores.

Dallas: Students were paid for each book they read. This reward system provided the greatest benefit. Test scores went up the most with this group.

Why did the Dallas incentive program work the best? It’s because the reward was the most immediate (as compared to others), students knew they’d get the reward, and most importantly, they felt it was in their power to do the task (read the book).

What Does This Have to Do with Motivating My Child?

Last year, I met a well-intentioned parent who was so distraught over her sixth grade daughter’s school performance, that she offered her a trip to Disney World if she got straight As. It didn’t work. Actually, it began to work. Her daughter was diligent with her homework for about three days, but her motivation slowly waned. Although the reward was certainly alluring, it was too far in the future. So mom changed her strategy. She began rewarding for daily accomplishments. She took the emphasis off grades (the product) and put them on homework effort (the process). After all, in order to have a good product, you must have a solid process.

Here’s how she did it, in her own words:

“I realized that yelling at my daughter wasn’t working. I’d yell at her to ‘get organized’ but she was still as sloppy as ever.  My husband and I set up a basic folder system for her that was a lot simpler than what she had. Each night, one of us would spend five minutes helping her to sort her papers. After a few weeks, she did not need our help as much (nor did she want it!)”

“For studying, I realized that she had no clue. If she had a social studies test, she would say she ‘studied in class’ or ‘already knew it’ when I knew she didn’t. I used to say ‘I better see you studying for that test!!’ but now I ask ‘How are you going to study? Can you show me?’ Having her explain her process to me gets her to think about the ways her teacher has taught her to review the material and what she and I have practiced together.”

“And the last thing I did was have a set time for homework for a minimum of 45 minutes. Before I’d always hear ‘I don’t have any homework’, but now she’s responsible for doing something academic during this time. It’s interesting. I haven’t given her lots of prizes, but I have been more cognizant about telling her that I’m impressed by her effort. She likes that.”

What If I Have an Older Child?

Simply deemphasizing report card grades and putting the focus on process is important. High schoolers usually don’t want their parents involved with homework, but parents can ask two questions, “What do you have and when will you do it?” The biggest problem that older students face is procrastination. By asking when homework will be started, you’re opening up the dialogue with regards to time management. I’ve found that homework quality improves greatly when students start homework before dinner. Beginning too late in the evening results in greater stress, late nights, poor work quality, and a very tired kid the next day.

Instead of paying for your teen’s good grades, consider granting privileges such as a trip to the mall or a football game once you’re fairly certain their homework is done.

Leave a Comment:

(7) comments

Luke Chung September 12, 2012

I’ve found that the goal is about teaching values. The values and standards of the child need to exceed that of the parent. The problem is much farther upstream than a particular homework item or test question needs to be addressed. Kids need to learn to make mistakes and overcome them. We never help our kids with their homework. We want them to get the wrong answer, go to school, get it marked wrong and realize what they didn’t understand or how they got tricked. Their reaction to the mistake is what’s more important. Starting at an early age that it’s in their power to overcome their mistakes — on their own — is what builds confidence, self-esteem and the desire to do their best. Also, the key to doing well in school is to be one page ahead in every class.

    Nancy Burns September 12, 2012

    I agree that your method works well for some children, however i have found that children with ADHD and learning disorders generally do not meet their full potential when left on their own to learn from their mistakes. Many of these children do not have the frontal lobe development necessary to complete all the steps required with that method. First they need to be able to look into the future and really understand why goodvgrades are important. Secondly they need to pay attention in class consistently so when the teacher asks ” Does anyone have any questions?” they actually ask their question and listen to the answer. In addition to the last point, many of these children have difficulty advocating for themselves so they would never consider asking a question. Lastly, many of these children have a low frustration tolerance so when they put forth effort but then do poorly over and over again they eventually give up. To sum this up, I do agree that your method works for some children, but many of us who suscribe to this email do so because we have children who struggle in school and therefore I wanted to encourage the parents of those children to explore many methods and find the one that works for your situation.

Joe Cabush September 12, 2012

Once again, Ann raises the questions we are all asking and answers them with much needed common sense. I think as parents we can brainstorm with our kids both short AND long term incentives if we have daily, weekly, quarterly rewards, etc. Obviously, a 7 year old and 17 year old are going to need different reward intervals. Rewarding for grades does have a cost, though. What if your child’s visual thinking is still underdeveloped so he fails in math? Or it may be that your child really learns a great deal from “failing” grades if she self corrects and explores her mistakes openly. In either case, success may be hidden somewhere in that work below “C level”.

Sharon September 12, 2012

My daughter has truly not cared one way or another about grades, late, incomplete, or missing assignments, or zeroes ever. We have tried so many strategies to help her get organized, even going to classes, and starting the binder with the accordian folder. She is just not motivated at this point. I was the same way at her age. She is a very good daughter, not disrespectful or rude, just disorganized and unmotivated. She is intelligent and can be very distracted by reading (A LOT). I am hoping that, as I did, she will become motivated later on, because not much that I say or do, is working. I believe that each child has to be intrinsically motivated in some way and she is not (at least not yet).

Kristin September 14, 2012

When my child was in first grade and she got her first homework assignment, she forgot to do it. I had no idea she had to do it. I stated right then that it was her deal and I would not ask if she had homework and I wiped her tears away. At this age the kids do love the teachers and it made an effect. She did not want to let her beloved teacher down.
I know it is not easy, and some kids do not react like this, but having a parent’s face in their homework is hard for them. I pay my child for good grades because this is how the world is. We have a saying, “Reading or Weeding”. I pay for both. A good paper grade gets a dollar and dollars add up.

Guess who does the weeding around the house? I do. The option of good grades is a better deal I guess. The child is reward in many ways; having the option of not doing chores and getting spending money which all kids needs one way or another. If grades drop, weeding gets place on her list as a requested service rather than punishment. Everything is an option and the more choices the better the outcome. Hugs work for good grades too, even if it is a struggle.

    Obai January 24, 2013

    In childhood, kids are rewarded with candy for a job well done. In school, students are rewarded with good grades for a job well done. In the real world, adults are rewarded with money for a job well done. Incentives are always a good motivator, whether it is to get a student to study, or to get an employee to work; however, it seems nowadays, good grades are not enough to successfully motivate students to study hard. So why not pay them for an A? Reward them with something that motivates us all, money. Many argue that providing a monetary reward for the students to learn creates a strong incentive for them to focus and study for class. While others disagree and claim that this diminishes the purpose of school, as “[the students will] lose interest in learning as soon as the rewards are withdrawn”(Geewax). Both sides have reasonable arguments, so it is understandable that this subject is an ongoing controversy, but what many fail to realize, is that policies such as this are not be possible for every school to uphold.

    One school in Chicago decided to implement such policy which “Ninth graders… were paid every five weeks based on grades in five core courses” (Aarons). This “”coin-operated” incentive plan” appeared to work (Jones), where one-ninth grader even collected $1,875 of a possible $2000; however, after one year, the school was forced to discontinue the program “ because of a lack of funding for a new cohort of students” (Aarons). While effective, this policy was short lived. The cost of paying these students was too much for the school to afford, and if a Chicago school could not afford this policy for one year, imagine placing this same cost on a school from Baltimore or Harlem. Of course, advocators of this policy would still argue that schools could simply reduce the amount of money that the students receive, therefore allowing for the incentive to still exist, and keeping the schools bank account from going red.

    In Dallas, students were “paid $2 for every book up to 20 per semester that they read, as long as they also could pass a quiz testing their comprehension” (Aarons). $13.81. Of a possible $80.00, $13.81 was the average amount that these students received (Aarons). This Dallas school reduced the monetary rewards, as the proponents have suggested, and what resulted was a considerably less effective policy as compared to Chicago’s. Though, we must acknowledge that this drastic change in efficiency may stem from the fact that these numbers were taken from a different school, with different kids, and a different cash reward. And yet, this is the exact problem the policy faces. There is no single thing that is a set incentive for all students. Young, Old, Rich Poor, Students will react differently to any sort of incentive. So how can we depend on money to solely motivate our students? Quite simply, we cannot.

    Opponents of this “coin-slot policy” argue that using money to lure kids into studying is wrong because it teaches them “that everything is about money … a bitter truth they are too young to learn”(Johnson). Many studies have shown that “recognizing [a] student’s accomplishments ultimately prove [to be] more encouraging”(Renwick). But this monetary incentive encourages the wrong thing. We cannot ignore the fact: when money becomes involved, we often focus on making more of it; so, many fear that the children will assume that getting good grades are for the money, and there is “ no other reason [than] that”(Johnson). Perhaps, if policies like this were to be carried out for years at a time, where generations of students would be effected by the policies, then these fears would be very real; but the costs of a monetary reward for academic success, are too great for it to be sustained for the long-term so the opponents of such policies need not worry.

    It is true that money is a good incentive that focuses students on studying harder. It is true that a policy like this will eventually create a mind-set where students view education as a “job”(Jones). And it is true, that currently, schools do not have means for such a large project, especially in large districts, or in small districts, or in poor districts, or in rich districts. The fact is, the margin which students will be affected by such an incentive is too large for any school to be flexible enough to fit. Unless policy-makers find a way for this incentive to affect every student equally, using money to ‘pay for an A’ is a step outside our current boundaries.

    Works Cited

    Aarons, Dakarai I. “Rewards for Students Spawn Mixed Results, Four-City Study Finds.” Education Week Vol. 29, No. 29. 21 Apr 2010: 13. SIRS Researcher. Web. 02 May 2011.

    “Does Paying for Good Grades Cheapen Education?.” NPR Weekend Edition Sunday. 30 Aug 2009: n.p. SIRS Researcher. Web. 02 May 2011.

    Johnson, Geoff. “Cash for Grades Teaches Children the Wrong Lesson.” Vancouver Sun. 27 Nov 2010: C.4. SIRS Researcher. Web. 02 May 2011.

    Jones, Del. “CEOs Split on Paying for Good Grades.” USA TODAY. Sept. 10 2008: n.p. SIRS Researcher. Web. 02 May 2011.

    Renwick, Lucille. “Ending the `Best’ of the Brightest.” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA). 18 Jun 1996: A1+. SIRS Researcher. Web. 02 May 2011.

    Turque, Bill. “Students Respond to Cash Awards.” Washington Post (Washington, DC). 10 Apr 2010: B.1. SIRS Researcher. Web. 02 May 2011.

Charlotte September 18, 2012

My son has learning differences and both kids have ADHD. Even after making sure they had the tools (and tutoring) to succeed in school, my son was still unmotivated. I read the Richard Fryer study and we decided to try it. It seems to work on motivation, although I haven’t looked at old report cards to see what it did on overall grades. We focused on an immediate reward, but also give a long-term reward. We give $1 for a 95 or higher on quizes, $1 for 90-94 on tests, $2 for a 95 or higher on tests. A large project gets $5 for a 90 or higher. We also give $5 for 90-94 on the report card and $10 for 95 or higher. Basically, they only get a reward for A’s. We make sure we also give praise for all good grades and express our desire that they do better on lower grades. They only get punishments for below 70 on progress reports or report cards and we tie the punishment to what they do in their free time that could be used for studying. We don’t take athletics or music because they aren’t “free time” in my kid’s minds. This has worked well.

Paying for grades is controversial, but worked for us. Although everyone would love to think that kids will learn for the enjoyment of learning, I haven’t met many kids who like going to school (until college). They would rather stay home and do things that interest them. I also haven’t met many adults who enjoy their job so much that they would go to work if they weren’t paid. They would stay home and do things that interest them.

Add Your Reply

Leave a Comment: