What Are Good Grades Worth?

February 11th, 2012 by Susan H. Greenberg

A mother struggles whether to pay her kids for good grades.

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The Responsibility Project

I was in middle school the first time I realized that some kids were making a killing on good grades. “Woo-hoo, $7!” I heard a classmate exclaim when she opened her report card at the end of one term. Her parents had promised her $2 for every “A” and $1 per “B.” (This was in the 1970s, when $7 was real money, especially to a 13-year-old.)

Stunned, I went home and asked my parents why I didn’t get paid for earning A’s. “Because that’s what we expect from you,” they said. “Doing well is its own reward.”  Mostly, it was; I worked hard and felt proud of my academic accomplishments. I wanted A’s, and I don’t think any amount of money would have made me try harder to attain them.

Now that I have kids of my own, however, I can see the other side of the cash-for-grades scheme. For the record, I have never paid any of my three children for a glowing report card. I still fundamentally believe that the sense of accomplishment is reward enough, and that the desire for success must come from within.

But as a parent, I also understand the value of incentives. We have used sticker charts for everything from potty training and sleeping through the night to emptying the dishwasher and learning the multiplication tables – 25 stickers earns the cheap plastic toy of your choice! – and they have almost always resulted in the desired behavior, at least temporarily.

So I don’t rule out paying for A’s. With our eldest daughter, it hasn’t been an issue; she is organized, driven and self-directed, and she finds it rather distasteful that some of her friends receive cash payouts for high marks. Her younger brother and sister, however, do not necessarily share the same drive – and they love money. Why not pay them to do well?

As it turns out, there are all sorts of ethical and practical reasons not to pay up. For one thing, it’s rewarding them for doing what they’re supposed to be doing anyway, which is mastering material for school. We don’t pay our kids to complete household chores, like mowing the lawn or feeding the dogs; why should they earn money to do well in school? It attempts to assign a tangible value to an intangible concept: learning. Plus, it’s expensive. Kids cost enough without paying them out of pocket for good grades.

But perhaps the most compelling reason for refusing to trade money for achievement is that there is no evidence that it works over the long-term. According to University of Rochester psychologist Edward Deci, a co-founder of the self-determination theory, which holds that intrinsic forces are far more successful in motivating individuals than extrinsic forces, offering rewards may motivate students in the short-term, but ultimately it has the opposite effect. Once they know they’re no longer getting anything for their trouble, they lose interest.

This theory stems in part from a 1973 experiment involving preschoolers and magic markers. In the study, which has been replicated in various forms over the years, three different groups of preschoolers were introduced to a new set of markers and asked to draw a picture. Researchers told one group they’d get a special certificate for their picture; a second group wasn’t told anything but received a certificate as a surprise, and the third group was told nothing and got nothing. The markers were removed and then reintroduced into the classroom about two weeks later. Researchers observed that the students who had been promised the certificate used the markers only about half as much as those in the other two groups. “Promising and then giving a reward made children like the markers less,” Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia, recounts in a recent issue of The American Educator. “But giving the reward as a surprise […] had no effect.”

By that logic, if I started paying my kids for good grades and then went broke, their grades would end up worse than before I opened up my wallet. But if they came home with A’s and I said, “Hey, great job, here’s $20,” it might produce a repeat performance next term.

Other studies have shown results. In 2007, Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist who won a 2011 MacArthur “genius” grant for his work in exploring the relationship between race and economic disparity, conducted a study of roughly 20,000 students in 261 urban schools in Washington, New York, Chicago and Dallas. His team paid out $6.3 million directly to students in an effort to determine which, if any, financial incentives would boost student achievement in different areas.

In New York and Chicago, where kids were paid cash for good grades on tests or as a reward at term’s end, their grades improved and they attended class more – but their standardized test scores did not budge. In Washington, payment was more regular; students could earn $100 every two weeks for a variety of metrics, including attendance and behavior. There, test scores improved along with the grades. But the Dallas students exhibited the most dramatic shift. Fryer’s team targeted a younger group – second graders – and simply paid them $2 for every book they read. Consequently, their reading comprehension test scores improved significantly, and the gains seemed to stick the following year, even after the rewards stopped. Fryer concluded that rewards are most effective when students earn them not for output, such as grades, but for their input, particularly on tasks they have already mastered.

Many schools, including the KIPP charter schools, routinely use input incentives: Students might win a pencil for good behavior or longer recess for completing a project. So perhaps I should try that – for every hour my middle-schooler spends on math, he earns $5? It sounds like a sure path to the poorhouse. I asked him if he thought paying him for better grades would work. “Sure,” he said. “$10 for an A, $5 for a B?” I suggested. He shook his head. “It’s got to be more than that! $20 and $10.” The kid drives a hard bargain. Now I just have to decide if a good report card is worth it.

Susan H. Greenberg is a writer, editor, teacher and author of the blog Unvarnished Mom.