Giving Kids Incentives for Good Grades


The question among educators and parents alike – as well as psychologists and right wing advocates; of whether to pay kids for good grades has been debated as much as presidential elections. Is it right or wrong? Is it morally adept? Is paying kids to perform in school ethical and most importantly – does it work effectively? All the answers largely depend on the child and the parental influence in the deal. One Harvard economist however has taken a proactive role in deciding whether or not “paying for grades” is a good or bad idea.

Rolan Fryer Jr. used private money to conduct a randomized study in classrooms from 4 major cities all across the United States. The study included 18,000 children and each geographic area had a different payment system in place. Some of the kids were paid based on attendance and behavior, other districts where paid based on test scores throughout the year. Another area paid students on an equal scale for meeting certain expectations and the last city – paid children for every book they read. While the initial excitement into the experiment caused a frenzy of improved test scores and heightened parental intervention, the real test of whether or not it worked or not would come at the end of the year. Fryer was looking to see if rewarding children for good grades would have a lasting and imperative effect on learning as a whole – by improving standardized test scores. The conclusion was rather alarming.

The three out of four districts where were paid based on test scores, attendance and behavior issues showed little to no improvement in overall test scores at the end of the year. These students, all from low-income school districts – who had earned perhaps the most money throughout the year (up to $200 per week), did not necessarily learn the material at a faster or more impressive rate. Even more disconcerting was that they did not retain the information. They were essentially working towards a paycheck, which seemed to significantly stymie the emotional learning process. They did not love learning – rather they loved earning! The fourth group, paid nominal amounts for every book read during the school year earned the least out of the test group. Interestingly, this was the only group that saw marked scholastic improvement on standardized test scores during the test year AND in the subsequent educational years. Obviously, these results were not expected.

As a parent, it is important to realize that children really should be thirsting for knowledge. Definitely, the impact of passionate teachers and exciting curriculums can enthuse students more than anything. This enthusiasm for learning allows them to process the information being given because they want to learn, rather than are getting compensated for it. Sadly, as adults the vast majority of us work for paychecks and have developed a thought process that allows the offering of bribes or compensation – to be a sole motivator. However, when it comes to education – this isn’t necessarily accurate and mom and dad need to be careful about passing this on to our children. School is not our children’s JOB – it is something that they are lawfully required to do.

Four decades ago, another study videotaped pre-school aged children who were divided into two groups. The first group was told they would get a prize (a large golden sticker) when they were finished with their drawing. Another group of children were offered no incentives for the drawing. The kids who were ‘paid’ spent half the time on their artistic masterpieces and after careful review – did not use as much imagination or thought in their work. The other group, drawing for the sheer enjoyment of learning pleasure not only spent more time working, but also seemed to put more creative intent (IQ) into their artwork.

With studies like these, it seems the common answer would be to not pay children for getting good grades. After all, schoolwork is a child’s responsibility. And even more troubling is that there are many children who will not fit neatly into the scholastic grading system used in schools today. This doesn’t mean they aren’t smart, aren’t trying – but that they aren’t being reached on a cognitive level that will bring the best out of them. These children certainly shouldn’t be punished for maintaining average or below average scores.

Still, many parents – at the end of their rope offer incentives to their children for good grades. The best idea is to offer the reward at the end of the year – and not before. If your child performs well, tries their best, and works to master their educational success – and you feel proud, then giving them a reward is perfectly fine. If it is done as a bonus, rather than as a carrot hung at the end of a stick during the year – it seems likely it will have a more lasting effect on your child. Why? Because they are learning because they are thirsty – rather than because they want to be paid.

It is also important for parents to investigate their child’s learning disabilities. If your child is constantly a non-performer at report card time, but seems to show no lack in the love of knowledge or intelligence, you may want to consider an alternative method of measuring their success educationally.

Paying kids to get good grades is absolutely commonplace nowadays. Over the past few decades, discipline has become a less favorable option – removing the aspect of consequences from our children’s worlds. Many parents feel that focusing on the good and bribing children (often before they are old enough to talk) is not only effective but lends a hand in the learning process. Even toddlers are being bribed to eat their dinner, brush their teeth, or sleep in their own bed. As your children get older the incentive to do what they should – will come only from rewards like payments or toys. As a parent, you have to think about what will happen when you remove the incentive plan. Are your children going to handle their responsibilities or will they have no willpower to succeed?

Giving your child an incentive for grades is not all bad. It doesn’t indicate a lack of parenting and for many parents – is just a nice way to show a job well done. There are benefits to it as well, such as allowing your child to feel good about an accomplishment and learn how to handle and respect money. However, studies and time seem to prove that it isn’t necessarily the best way to help your child learn and experience growth scholastically.

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