Can Money Buy Good Grades?

Last week, I wondered if money can buy happiness. It seems that people with more money are generally happier, especially if they spend it on others. It’s hard to say that the money causes the happiness, but it’s helpful to know what we can do to be happier. What if we want kids (ours or the ones we’re going to be working with when they graduate) to get good grades? Would it make sense to pay kids to work harder and be more likely to succeed in school?

My initial reaction is to be skeptical. Part of the reason is that I inherently dislike any form of incentive that I see as manipulative. As an example, in looking at happiness, we saw that it wasn’t just spending, but meaningful spending that made people happy. Learning, too, should be meaningful, and if we’re asking kids to do work that is pointless or repetitive, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if they don’t value the assigned busywork. The other part of the reason derives from an anecdote that I read in Freakonomics by┬áSteven Levitt. He tells the story of a daycare that begins charging parents for arriving late, only to find that parents begin to arrive late more often, in proportion to their ability to afford the new fee. What they lost was the moral and social expectation that parents arrive on time. If we pay students for good grades, will they devalue learning and fail in proportion to not needing the money?

Michael Sandel, author of What Money Can’t Buy, explains that in America, the thinking that properly applied cash incentives can cure an ailing school system is gaining popularity. He relates a study that found that cash incentives could improve attendance, but not performance on standardized tests. Paying seven year olds $2 per book to read more, in Dallas, did improve reading comprehension. He doesn’t say, though, whether any of those kids grew up hating reading, thinking it was something you would only do if someone paid you enough. Even offering teachers incentives for raising their students’ test score had little effect.

Dan Pink may hold the clue. In his book, Drive, he explains that there are two different types of work that people do: physical tasks or thinking tasks. Physical tasks that can be done quicker or more accurately seem to respond well to rewards and punishments (incentives). Thinking tasks, on the other hand, don’t respond to incentives. In fact, performance might even suffer due to added pressures.

Have you experienced incentives at work? Were they effective? Should kids in school be bribed to perform?

13 thoughts on “Can Money Buy Good Grades?”

  1. Incentives at work:

    Do a great job and then get more work, while earning a 2-3% yearly inflation adjusted raise.

    Should kids be bribed? No way. They are being programmed to no longer think for themselves. Go to school, get good grades, get a job, house, married, kids, better job, bigger house etc etc. Ie. the learning system is based on an old prussian model of training soldiers. People getting paid to get an education and then job house kids etc, I feel are just being trained as better ‘soldiers’ in the work force.

    This is why I do not reward my children with money for doing chores around the house. Trying to not have them think of things the ‘normal’ way of doing them. ie, do a job get paid. Go to work, get paid.

    Last summer I was shown that some of the stuff ‘crap’ I talk about with my daughter is sinking in. While on vacation we were camping, and her and her little friend set up a stand to sell caterpillars for $0.50 each. No one bought any, and they were only doing it for fun, but I see she is thinking outside of the box.

    It is very interesting to talk to a 7 year old about buying real estate and playing monopoly.

    The main thing is to be different, need to think differently.

  2. I would never pay a kid to preform at school. What about the kid with the unidentified learning disorder? Or the girl who’s just scraping by because she can barely stay awake in class because she is in an abusive home? Paying for performance would do far more harm to them than it would benefit others.

  3. Elizabeth, I think you raise the important point that paying students to perform contains the subtle implication that they are somehow holding back, that they’re not doing their best work and they’re just waiting for better incentives. That kinds of thinking is disrespectful to children, just like it is when applied to teachers, doctors or any other professionals where we suggest implementing pay for performance.

  4. My mom paid me $.25 for every A I made in school. I was practically failing elementary school and after she started paying me, I started make a lot of A’s. She didn’t pay me for very long but it did the trick. I was holding back and I could do better but I wasn’t motivated to until my mom paid me. I eventually graduated college with honors, so to me it seems like paying kids works.

    As far as on the job, paying people for performance works well. You get x bonus for every y you produce. The problem comes is that you can be incentivizing the wrong thing. Maybe, you get a bonus for every 10 sales calls you make, the result management wants is more sales, but it may end up being a lot of crappy calls and no more sales.

  5. In the circumstances around my childhood (mainly a cultural and generational gap), no one I knew went to college or university. Even when I got to high school, the message I got was that it was just for kids that wanted to be lawyers or doctors.
    If a kid did well on their report card (and anyone found out), they were ostracized by the other kids. I learned that it didn’t matter if I did well or not, as long as I passed (they still held you back a grade if you didn’t at least get a “D”).
    I learned the lessons, and understood most of it, but did not know why I had to repeatedly write down the same thing over and over again to prove it, so I didn’t. I aced most of my tests, and completed the projects that “mattered”, but rarely did homework.
    I did not get rewarded at home for grades, although I heard of other kids that did. I think I would have tried harder if I felt there was some purpose or reward to be had.

  6. In raising my own child, I did not “pay” for grades, but we did do something to “celebrate” when she did well (a favorite dinner out, a trip to an amusement park etc), and if she didn’t do as well as we knew she could, some privileges were withheld until she showed us she was trying again.

  7. I can’t see paying someone to get good grades on a quid pro quo basis. I was nearly a straight-A student as a kid and I never got any money for it. I worked hard for those grades because I wanted to get those A’s. I received a few academic awards in grade school for top achievements. In college, I made Dean’s List twice and graduated with honors. I did win one award which included a check for $100 but I had no idea that award even existed.

    As for work, I got a few special bonuses over the years for over-and-above quality of work but there was no pre-arranged incentives for those awards. Management was simply recognizing extraordinary work already done.

  8. I heard something on “This American Life” a few months ago where the biggest bang for your buck you can get education-wise is in pre-school. The skills learned are “soft skills”, like sharing and conflict resolution. They followed a bunch of kids from lower-class families for a long-term study and found that this more than anything had a more positive impact down the road.

    I was never paid to get the good grades I got, when I was little I was told that school was my “job” and I was expected to do well. It seemed to work for me.

  9. Stephen King was paid something like $.25 by his aunt for every story he wrote. He probably would have written anyway, but you never know.

  10. Incentives did not work on me. My mom tried all kinds of incentives, i.e. gift, money, threats, etc… to try to get me to do some chores (I did none), garden work, better grades, etc…. and nothing worked. I was lazy, did mediocre school work, etc..I’m actually surprised I made it through University! However, now as an adult, I work hard, am successful, and can ER at 45 if I choose to. I think it depends on how some kids are wired. Some do well with incentives, other’s don’t.

  11. If you bribe them to perform, they’ll never do it on their own, or they’ll expect money to perform.

    Should just let them either work or not work. On some kids, it works, on others just the sheer satisfaction of being the best, is the only incentive they need.

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