Paying students for good grades is a controversial practice, and many would argue that it cheapens the learning experience (pun intended). However, it appears that sometimes monetary incentives can be a positive motivation for struggling students if they are applied wisely. I'll go through some scientific findings on the success of incentive programs in schools and then give you ideas for how you can responsibly implement a reward policy for your student.
Cash Incentives for Students: Who Pays? Parents or Schools?
Some schools have experimented with payment programs (as I’ll discuss in the next couple of sections), and the results from these studies can help parents decide if and how to use monetary incentives for good grades. Since it is unlikely that your high school is or will be a part of these types of studies, in the last section of this article I will discuss how parents can implement payment systems to reward students for good grades.
Small incentives are likely within the reach of most parents. Fun low-cost experiences can also be substituted for money! In considering the successes and failures of experimental school-based payment plans, we can make inferences about how parents can successfully use monetary rewards to help students get better grades. The studies I describe in the next section will provide information that can be applied to the more specific circumstances surrounding you and your family.
What Do Studies Say About Paying Students for Good Grades?
There have been a few studies over the years that have experimented with paying students for attending and doing well in school. At Chelsea High School in Chelsea, MA, students were given $25 if they had a perfect attendance record during a school term. This study ran from 2004-2008 but didn't seem to yield any improvements in academic performance or attendance at the school.
Schools have also experimented with giving students prizes for attendance. In Georgia, at Stone Creek Elementary School, students were given incentives for attendance including video game consoles, ice cream, and other prizes. The rate of students missing 15 or more days of school during the year dropped by 10 percent. This study may have had more success than the one in Chelsea because the embodiment of incentives in the form of something like an Xbox is more exciting to kids than the prospect of earning $25 at the end of a semester.
Seems like kind of a counterproductive reward, but whatever.
The most wide-ranging study on monetary incentives for good grades was organized by Harvard economist and founder of Harvard’s Education Innovation Laboratory, Roland Fryer, in the cities of Dallas, New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Over 38,000 students were given paychecks for performing well in school. Each city had a different incentive system to test the merits of various methods of paying students for good grades.
The experimental group in Dallas was comprised of 3,718 second-grade students at 21 different public schools in the Dallas Independent School District. These students were paid $2 every time they read a book, with a limit of 20 books per semester. To earn the reward, students had to take an AR (Accelerated Reader) quiz on the book and score at least an 80 percent. The average student received $13.81 in incentive payments, with a total of $42,800 distributed.
In New York City, 63 schools were included in the experimental group with a total of 15,883 fourth and seventh-grade students. Incentives were given out based on students' performance on six computerized exams (three in reading and three in math) and four pencil and paper predictive assessments. Fourth graders earned $5 for completing a test and $25 for a perfect score. Incentives for seventh graders were set at double this amount, so they earned $10 for completing a test and $50 for a perfect score. In this case, the average fourth-grader earned $139.43, and the average seventh-grader earned $231.55.
The portion of the study in Chicago was conducted in 20 low-performing public schools with 7,655 ninth-graders. In this case, students were simply given incentives for their grades in five core courses: English, math, science, social science, and gym. Students would earn $50 for each A, $35 for each B, $20 for each C, and no money for lower grades. The average student earned $695.61.
In Washington, D.C., 17 schools were included in the experimental group. Sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade students were given incentives based on attendance, behavior, and three other inputs chosen by each school individually. These mostly included things like wearing a school uniform and completing homework and classwork. Students were given one point for each of the five metrics they satisfied on a given school day. This meant that students could earn a maximum of 50 points during each two-week pay period. Each point was rewarded with a $2 monetary incentive. The average student earned about $40 every two weeks.
Give kids the gift that keeps on giving: cold hard cash.
From the data collected after these studies, there is very limited evidence to suggest that monetary incentives improve student performance. In Chicago, GPA and credits earned on average increased by a very small amount, but there were no changes in standardized test scores. In New York, no significant positive changes were noted in terms of either test scores or GPA.
The portion of the study conducted in Dallas showed some potential. Reading achievement increased significantly on standardized English tests taken by the second graders after the study. The middle school students in Washington, D.C. schools also demonstrated improvement in reading and, to a lesser degree, math scores. In the next section, I'll go over what these results might mean in regards to the effectiveness of paying students for good grades.
What Can We Learn From This Information?
The success of these policies depended heavily on how and for what reason the money was distributed. Students were more likely to improve if they were given monetary rewards for concrete tasks like reading books (Dallas) or completing classwork (D.C.) rather than something more abstract like earning a certain grade. If students don’t have an understanding of the tools and strategies they need to implement in order to improve, they won’t be able to change their grades or test scores.
More specific directives help kids who may have never learned how to study properly get on the right track. Improvements in grades and scores may come later as a result. In general, the studies show that giving money to students for good grades only works if you also give them the strategies they need to get there and provide incentives for smaller milestones that are less intimidating. Inputs, rather than outputs, should be rewarded first.
It's impossible to reach your destination if you don't have directions. Also, whoever took this picture should probably stop lying in the middle of roads for the sake of mediocre artsy photography.
The Pros and Cons of Paying Kids for Good Grades
If you’re thinking about rewarding your child with cash for good grades, you should take the arguments for and against it into account. Some would say that, even if a child improves his or her grades as a result of a monetary incentive, it’s sending the wrong message. When you set up money as a motivator, it may cause a student to lose any appreciation for the intrinsic value of learning. If their only motivation is money, they may lose interest in the actual subjects and could suffer later on when rewards are less forthcoming. This won't happen with every kid, but it’s a risk that comes with the territory.
However, if you have a student who’s very unmotivated and just feels like there’s no point to trying in school, money could be a good motivator. Even for students who don’t plan on going to college, it’s important to get a high school degree. Paying students who plan on going to trade schools or professions rather than a four-year college may be a productive strategy. Students who feel like they’re “not cut out for school” may respond well to concrete incentives for good academic performance.
The privilege of being able to wear a hideous hat is only one of the many perks of graduating from high school.
What's the Most Effective Method of Paying Your Child for Good Grades?
If you’re hoping to see actual improvement, you should challenge your child to meet specific short-term goals first. Avoid saying something like “I’ll give you $100 if you get an A in this class.” If your child is doing poorly in a class, she might not know where to begin in terms of improving her performance to an A level. Instead, you can try something like “If you finish every problem set you’re assigned in Algebra 2/read all the chapters you were assigned for English/work on your history project for three hours this week, I’ll give you $10.”
These are concrete goals that any student can achieve with some persistence. You can still plan on giving your child a bonus if and when she reaches a certain letter grade, but in the meantime, taking baby steps towards that grade with short-term goals is important.
To make it a little more fun, you could set up a system where, if a student completes a certain number of small milestones, he or she earns a monetary reward. This might work if your child is struggling in more than one class and needs to do a significant amount of work in different areas to catch up.
Another idea that could be even better than a cash reward is to reward your child with a fun experience for diligent study habits. This could be as simple as going out to a favorite restaurant or taking a day trip. It all depends on the temperament of your child and the types of incentives you think he or she will appreciate the most.
There are also many other ways to encourage your child to do better in school without monetary incentives. Some kids need more structure than others, so setting up a homework schedule might help keep them on track. You may also be able to work with the school to organize low-cost tutoring from more advanced peers and extra help from teachers. These methods can yield more significant positive results than payment plans if they're implemented effectively, but it will take time and effort on the part of both you and your student.
Gold stars might not work as actual incentives for high school students, but their symbolic value still stands.
If you're looking for tips on how to get good grades in high school, read this article to learn about academic strategies that can lead to major improvements.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.