Don't Reward Classroom Performance With Money

Steve Rosen
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Posted: Sep 25, 2008 12:01 AM

When my children earn good grades in school, I try to reward them - a pat on the back, some encouraging words, and maybe dinner or a sleepover with friends.

It's been a pretty good incentive system.

But paying money for good classroom performance or nailing a big exam? Not a good use of my financial resources.

That's why I have concerns about programs being pushed in a growing number of mainly urban school districts around the country to pay high school students for high test scores and grades. The goal: motivate learning, particularly among "at risk" poor and minority students.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, school administrators and philanthropists have pushed to launch pay-for-performance programs at hundreds of high schools in the past two years. In some cases, teachers are being rewarded, too.

One of the model programs is in Texas, where students enrolled in Advanced Placement classes who get top scores on math, science and English tests are paid up to $500. This fall, Virginia, Connecticut and four other states are replicating the Texas program. Financed through private grants, about a dozen schools in each state are participating, with more expected next year, the Journal reported.

In addition, some schools are paying students for perfect attendance and completing coursework. Other districts have handed out cash for attending summer school classes.

This brings a whole new meaning to the term "smart money."

No doubt, most students would like this teaching tactic, but I don't. I've always thought that our children's' "job" was to go to school, work hard, do the best they could to learn, and to develop a sense of personal satisfaction for reading a book, cracking a tough math problem or solving a scientific experiment. Cash rewards for those efforts are not appropriate.

To me, cash motivators are another example of throwing great gobs of money at a problem without correcting the root causes, such as crowded classrooms, underpaid or poorly trained teachers, and overloaded curriculum.

Patricia Palmer, a field director for the Center for Economic Education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said cash rewards for learning raised broader societal questions.

"We now have to teach service learning in order to help young people recognize that they should give back to their community," Palmer said. "I attribute much of this ... to the notion that to produce is to be paid, regardless of whether it is a good deed for a neighbor, schoolwork or at work."

To be sure, these are extraordinarily difficult times for teachers, many of whom are faced with dwindling resources while trying to meet the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act. At the same time, some students, frankly, aren't motivated to learn or don't care enough to regularly come to school.

Although the results of cash incentives have been mixed at best, researchers point to successes of the 12-year-old Texas program as an indication that the concept can work.

Perhaps the incentives might even provide some students with the extra cash they'll need to attend college and achieve success.

Kirabo Jackson, an assistant professor of labor economics at Cornell University, summed up the hopes for student-incentive programs in a report published in the fall issue of Education Next: "If this program increases a student's likelihood of attending college, elevates the quality of college attended and reduces the time it takes to graduate college, the costs of the program on a per-student basis would be far less than the average increase in lifetime earnings."

Which brings me back to my first thoughts: If some educators think pay for performance is a good idea, should parents offer money as a motivator?

Again, better to reward with a pizza, letting a friend spend the night and offering praise for a job well done when the family is together. Moreover, once you start dangling money, where does it end? A C-note? A PlayStation? A car? It's a slippery slope. And what happens if your children stumble and get poor grades -- would they owe you money?

In the end, however, paying for good grades is a personal decision that must be based on parental values and your knowledge of what will work best with your children.

If you opt to hand out the bucks, I'd advise doing it in small amounts and limiting the occurrences.

And one more thing -- at least help your children learn to make sound financial decisions, to be disciplined with their spending and to sock money away for the future. Those are lessons every child needs to ace.