Growing up in a diverse, middle-class suburb, I used to marvel at parents I knew who paid their kids for grades. You know, $25 for an A, $10 for a B, and so on. My parents weren’t the type to look over my homework every night or demand I hand over each graded assignment for examination. When I brought home mediocre grades in math and French, they simply encouraged me to keep working, and when I did well in English and social studies, they said they were proud. The message in my house was clear: Education is its own reward, and you’re only hurting yourself if you perform to less than your full ability. No cash incentives were involved.
Looking back as an adult, however, I’m not so quick to judge. I’ve seen the frustration of parents whose kids suffer from ADHD or other learning disabilities that make studying an uphill climb, or whose kids simply don’t love reading, writing, and arithmetic. Those parents understandably look for extra ways to motivate their children to learn and succeed. Of course, not all parents have equal amounts of time and money to devote to educational extras. And sadly, not every child grows up absorbing pro-education messages or seeing up close the results of academic success. So despite my gut reaction against some of the new programs in New York City, Baltimore, and Atlanta that pay students for high grades and test scores, I’m willing to give them a second look.
Education Week reports that some initial research on those programs is positive:
A recent study by C. Kirabo Jackson, a professor of labor economics at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., found that a Texas program that pays students in disadvantaged public schools for passing Advanced Placement exams has been accompanied by increased participation in AP classes and higher scores on the exams. ("Tying Cash Awards to AP-Exam Scores Seen as Paying Off," Jan. 16, 2008.)
But Mr. Jackson isn’t so sure that the promise of cash is solely responsible for the increase.
“[It’s] more that there’s a cultural change in the school on the part of the teachers and the students,” he said. “Teachers have a more inclusive attitude towards AP tests, and students are more likely to take them.”
The question then becomes how schools can change their culture regarding achievement without depending on a reward structure that may not be sustainable, or that sends mixed messages about the value of learning. One answer is upending stereotypes about what types of kids are "prepared" or "motivated" enough to succeed in advanced classes. Students won’t take the plunge into a tougher course if they haven’t gotten the message that advanced classes are for kids like them. Many low-income and non-white kids are actively dissuaded from challenging themselves by adults at school, and don’t have someone at home pushing back. In the short term, cash incentives can give a shock to a school’s culture by turning these kids into their own best advocates; if they need or want the money bad enough, they’ll push to take the class and succeed in it. In that way, cash incentives make school more like life.
But the problem is much deeper than these cash-for-grades programs can fix. I’ll end with this quote from Damian Gillepsie, a high school senior in my home town of Ossining, New York, who participates in a group called Project Earthquake, which provides educational and personal support for African American boys:
When you, a black student, walk into class, they say, ‘It’s great if he gets a B.’ But if the white student gets a B, it’s, ‘You could do better, you gotta do better, don’t settle for less.’ That’s what Earthquake is trying to do. We’re trying to say to the black community, ‘don’t just settle.’"
Money is one way to do that. But one-on-one and group counseling are others — and they cost more than giving kids pocket change for better scores.
cross-posted at TAPPED