Exchanging A’s for Cash Money

I’m feeling a bit queasy after reading the ABCNews.com story “Some D.C. Students to Be Paid for A’s” from 8/26/08. Here’s an excerpt:

Will middle school students hit the books, show up on time and be on their best behavior if they’re getting paid?

As Washington, D.C. students start back to school this week, that’s the thinking behind a new program just launched in the district. As early as October at 14 of 28 D.C. middle schools, students will get paid to perform as part of a pilot program that rewards kids for good grades, attendance, and behavior.

Kids could rake in up to $100 per month, getting paid every two weeks through the program.

Behind the program is D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who’s getting a lot of press for her new approaches to old problems. I’m all for new approaches, if they happen to be better than the old ones. Here’s the comment I posted on ABCnews:

This makes my stomach turn. Of course kids will strive to get better grades if they’ll earn money for it. The question is whether they’ll continue to do so when the rewards are gone, and whether the objective is high grades or deep, self-motivated learning. Alfie Kohn’s book, Punished by Rewards, cites study after study showing that when kids begin to get rewarded for behaviors — even those they previously chose to do (like coloring) — they will stop the behavior when the rewards stop. He also points out that high grades are already a reward, so pay for high grades is a reward for a reward — which is absurd.

Paying kids for high grades is like saying, “If you eat your vegetables, you’ll get dessert.” Kids grow to see the vegetables as the unpleasant means to a positive end, and it’s unlikely that they’ll eat them on their own without the reward. And if the kids think the vegetables (and curriculum) are unappealing, maybe it’s time to spice them up a little instead of using bribes?

High grades do not mean that kids are learning, or are enjoying learning. I sacrificed my health and happiness for high grades throughout school but didn’t retain much. In fact, I’m currently doing a project called Reschool Yourself to repeat my K-college education, on my terms. I hope that someone has the foresight to call off the pay-for-grades program before it does too much damage to kids’ intrinsic motivation.

I could have gone on at length about paying kids for grades, because I think it’s wrong on so many levels.

What do you think? Were you paid for high grades as a kid, and if so, how did that affect you?

Note 9/6/08: I posted the following topic on the forum: “Are grades in school necessary?

Excerpt courtesy of Kate Barrett and abcnews.com. Flickr Creative Commons image courtesy of emdot.

Comments (6)

  1. Mr. Hsu

    I know you saw the reference to a “pilot program called Spark, for younger students in New York City”. Whoa.

    I was never paid for high grades, ever. We’ve talked about this before, how it was ingrained in me from an early age that getting good grades was the norm. I used to resent those kids who got a new car for getting an A, 3 Bs, and a C in school, which is when I decided I would not settle for mediocrity.

    Although one time, I did get my cable television reconnected for scoring at a certain level on the SAT. It didn’t have too profound of an impact, since that was really the only time i’ve gotten a reward of any sort for achievement. The intrinsic value talked about in the article is what has always been my reward to this day.

  2. Melia

    I know, I forgot to mention the Spark connection. Weird. Hope it doesn’t tarnish our good name. 🙂

    Yeah, I definitely resented the kids who got rewarded for their grades. My parents didn’t put pressure on me at all; I was lucky that they were so supportive. I somehow developed a crushing need to overachieve all on my own. I spent many stressful hours trying to get the best grades and finally realized — at the end of college — that they were meaningless. I wish I’d figured that out early on like some of my classmates did.

  3. Ide

    My grandma used to pay us as a reward for good grades when we were in elementary school. It certainly wasn’t $100 a month, but we got $1 for every A, 75 cents for every B and 50 cents for every C. I guess there was the potential to make about $10 per report card. It was her way of celebrating our achievements with us, and while we liked getting the money we didn’t get good grades with the reward in mind. It was actually more satisfying to hear her words of praise when she saw my grades. I liked to please her.

    I can see the district’s logic in paying kids for doing well in school; it may help students prioritize their studies a bit more. It’s also important to take the kids’ needs into account. A lot of students in the Washington, D.C., district come from bad home situations, and they don’t do well (or finish school at all) because they lack emotional and financial support. Would it help them stay in school if they could earn money while they’re there?

    Of course, the problem you run into (besides the obvious issues with offering a reward for something that should be a priority regardless) is that it leaves out a lot of kids who learn differently and have lower grades because of it. Will the program put more pressure on students who don’t have the natural ability to succeed in the public school system? Is it going to call attention to their problems in a negative way? It’s one thing to give a little nudge to kids who are capable of doing well but aren’t because it’s not a priority for them. It’s another thing entirely to penalize a student because he or she has ADHD, a learning disability or any other issue that makes it tough to perform well in a traditional setting.

  4. Margaret

    All interesting comments. And Melia- great job representing on the news site- a very pithy and “evidence-based” retort. I actually was paid for good grades: I think it was $10 for an A, and $10 for a B+ or better if it was in math, my most trying subject. This was in high school. I think in middle school, it started with $1 an A or something like that. There were no rewards for less than an A.
    I believe I pitched it to my dad by saying that it was like my job, so I should get paid for it. Either that, or it evolved away from a chore-allowance model to grades for some reason. I still did chores, just less and less… still a bit guilty about that, but school and extracurriculars did take up a whole lot of my time. Grooming for the college apps, I suppose.

  5. Margaret

    Oh- and about Michelle Rhee- I saw her talking at a public meeting on a local channel earlier this year, and she seemed like a great new energy force- especially for accountability in the District. I am surprised about this money thing. She’s a former TFAer, and seemed to have great ideas to cut through the DC red tape.

  6. Melia

    Margaret, do you think that not being paid for anything less than an A associated getting a B or below with failure? As school becomes more competitive, it seems as if an A now means “meeting the requirements,” and anything less means “not up to par.”

    I saw Michelle Rhee interview with Charlie Rose (see clip) and thought she did have high energy and some good ideas. She thinks that retaining talented, committed teachers is the most important way to improve education and also apparently listens to kids’ suggestions about how to improve. However, she believes strongly in incentives, like linking teachers’ pay to test scores, which is a whole other loaded topic of discussion. The pay-for-grades policy is in line with this thinking, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear that she was behind it.

    Katie, do you think that if you’d been paid more, like $100/week, for good grades, you would have focused more on getting the grades to get the reward? For me, if I were paid a lot for A’s, I’d have one more reason to feel bad for falling short — on top of not being praised, fearing the damage to my transcript, etc.

    I also liked to please my parents and teachers but found that I quickly became dependent on their approval and praise. After I graduated, I found myself seeking out ways to keep the praise coming, needing to maximize the “WOW” factor in everything I do instead of doing it for my own satisfaction. I also have trouble distinguishing what I want to do from what other people want me to do.

    You make a good point about the money helping low-income kids out a little, so perhaps they won’t drop out to get a job. As you say, however, this will probably benefit the kids inclined to do well anyway and further alienate kids who aren’t doing well for various reasons. A lot of low-achieving kids I’ve worked with just don’t operate the way school requires them to, or have significant family challenges not conducive to playing the school game. I think paying for A’s is another way for them to feel like failures and check out.

    The larger questions are whether grades should exist at all, and how rewards affect people’s self-perception and behavior. I’ll post those questions on the forum if anyone’s interested in discussing them.


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