Debate About Paying Children to Learn is All About Nurturing Success

Posted: Oct 01, 2008 12:01 AM
Debate About Paying Children to Learn is All About Nurturing Success

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column raising concerns about paying children for good grades.

In particular, I was troubled by a growing movement among mostly large, urban school districts around the country to pay high schoolers for classroom performance.

More than a dozen readers e-mailed or called me after the column ran.

Many liked the column, noting that they didn't receive cash rewards for doing well in school when they were growing up. They also didn't hand out cash to their children. Instead, they offered them a few words of praise -- that way they hoped their children would learn personal satisfaction from a job well done.

"I was the youngest of nine children," said Kenneth Lee of Raytown, Mo. "My parents had a very simple incentive system for the family. They told us what to do and we did it. They sent us to school, told us to bring home good grades, and failure was not an option. We all made it through college without help from the parents in the form of incentives or subsidies."

Irene Cerny, a reader from Texas, offered a teacher's perspective. "I wish schools would get the message," said Cerny, who taught for 30 years before retiring. "I have seen enough enabling of students, and paying for good grades is just another silly incentive."

Kevin Caldwell of Kansas City drew the line on cash incentives a different way. When his daughter was in elementary school, he and his wife opened a college savings account and socked away $100 for every A on her report card and $50 for every B.

"When she was in fourth grade, she was committed to going to college," wrote Caldwell, "and she got one B and all A's the rest of the way through school. She was always checking to see the balance on that account, which was in a mutual fund and doing great."

By the time Caldwell's daughter graduated high school, scholarships and income from part-time jobs wound up paying for most of her college tuition and fees. Wrote Caldwell: "The money that was in the mutual fund which she had accumulated for all those years ended up paying for a car and all the insurance and other expenses associated with the car, and even left her with a few thousand dollars to spare."

I also heard from Kathy Seal, co-author of "Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing with Competition While Raising a Successful Child." She said extensive research over the past 35 years shows that paying children to learn may bring out an initial burst of effort, but the motivation doesn't last.

In fact, she wrote, "research has shown that paying kids over the long term will extinguish any interest they come in with, and teach them instead to focus on money."

Seal also raised broader societal questions about how schools motivate children to learn. One problem, Seal said, is that "many of these programs are aimed at poor kids. The fancy private schools, the really good public schools and the finest teachers don't pay kids to learn. They cultivate kids' love of learning, which is inborn."

As a strategy, Seal said, cash-for-performance solutions are "at best an inferior stopgap. It will get them to learn the bare necessities. It doesn't push them toward lifelong learning, which is increasingly what people need in this economy to survive. ... To me, it's like an apartheid of schooling. Teach privileged kids the best way, teach poor kids in a second- or third-rate way."

But several readers were in favor of schools offering cash rewards. One of them, Jen Vogrin of Mission, Kan., zeroed in on comments I made about expecting my children to go to school, work hard and do the best they could -- without handing them a paycheck.

"We cannot judge the efficacy of (pay for performance) programs through our personal standards," wrote Vogrin.

"In poorer, low socio-economic households, in general, education is not valued in and of itself. There may not be expectations of doing better than one's parents. ... If anything will help children in these households to break out of the cycle of poverty, it is valuing education. If they are not taught this at home, they must learn it somewhere. And if offering them small amounts of cash will bring a young adult out of the cycle of poverty and make them a productive, working member of society, I'm all for it."

While I still don't believe in paying for good study habits, the feedback I received made me realize once again the passion many people carry toward helping children succeed in school. That's the real bottom line to this debate.