Parents have paid their children for good grades for decades. This trend is now starting to catch on in school districts across the United States as a way to encourage positive behaviors. Cash incentives are one of several rewards that students can earn when their grades for a semester or evaluation period reach specific levels. It is an option based on the scores of standardized tests as well.
Although students certainly welcome the idea of receiving extra cash for doing a good job in school, there is still a question that remains. Is paying them for excellent grades something that helps their academic future, or does it provide harm in the long run that could create unreasonable expectations?
Should students get paid for their development as a way to offset the bonds of poverty, or does it adversely impact them for the challenges that they will face in the future?
There are several pros and cons to consider when paying for good grades that provide a legitimate argument for both perspectives.
List of the Pros of Paying Students for Good Grades
1. Cash and other forms of payment provide an incentive to study.
Kids are spending up to eight hours per day in school as early as the first grade. That’s the same amount of time that their parents spend at their job. If adults get paid for their commitment to working, then shouldn’t students receive the same incentive? Money and other valuable rewards are fantastic motivators when there is something that is needed or wanted. Paying for good grades can keep kids and teens engaged with their studies while helping them to avoid the need to work somewhere to support themselves.
2. Paying for grades is an easy way to help underprivileged children.
When children come from poor economic circumstances then they are more likely to drop out of school before graduation. This result happens because their family needs them to start working a job. It doesn’t matter what their employment pays because every little bit helps to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. That means there is no time or energy to go to school.
Paying students for grades can help families to make ends meet in this situation. Students typically enroll in more classes when cash incentives are available. Kids feel better about themselves because they are contributing to their overall needs. It also means they’re more likely to maintain a C average or better.
3. There is more financial freedom for students.
Many students graduate from high school without any idea of how to manage their finances. Kids often ask for something, and then get what they want. Some might even argue that the parenting perspective from today is that children can have whatever they desire without really needing to work for it. By paying them for their good grades, then students can experience what it feels like to get something after actually earning it. That means more financial freedom occurs because it is easier to recognize the value of each dollar earned.
Parents can expand this benefit by encouraging their students to open a savings account with the money they receive from their good grades.
4. It provides an opportunity for vocational training.
Our world operates on the idea that if you put in the work, you should get paid for the results you create. Schools already operate on the idea that putting in hard work gives you the reward of a good grade. That works for some students, but not for others. Offering money as a “paycheck” shows that doing hard work can create tangible rewards as well. For students who want a job and aren’t old enough to get one, this benefit allows them to earn the money for the expensive things they want over time.
5. Paying students doesn’t need to involve only their grades.
In New York City, an experimental group of 15,000 students in the fourth and seventh grade were given performance incentives based on the results of computerized, pencil, and paper predictive exams. All fourth graders earned $5 for a completed test and $25 if they achieved a perfect score. The seventh graders had their rewards doubled. The average fourth grader earned $139.43 from the study, while the seventh graders earned $231.55 and both groups so their scores rise.
6. It can help students to start paying for college.
If students do receive money for their good grades, then it would create an opportunity for them to start saving for college. Tuition costs continue to rise, even for in-state students, and that can make it more of a challenge to earn a desired degree. Schools could even give the parents the money instead of the kids or deposit the earnings in a savings account that can build in value over the course of their educational career. It might cost more for taxpayers to use this type of system to support public school budgets, but the results could help more kids (especially from poor neighborhoods) find a way to change their overall life circumstances.
List of the Cons of Paying Students for Good Grades
1. It provides a short-term solution to a long-term problem.
Paying students for good grades can provide some community benefits, but it doesn’t change the overall problem that faces society. Different children are going to perform better when money is an incentive. Kids who have a desire to learn will continue to benefit from that trait whether they get paid for it or not. A child who has no desire to learn will only work hard when the cash payments have value. If that value disappears, then so does the work ethic.
The reality of learning opportunities in the United States is that families with more resources get to send their kids to better schools. Paying for good grades is not going to change the economic depravity that exists in many inner cities. We must change at a societal level more than we need classrooms to evolve.
2. There are questions of morality to consider with this approach.
Some see the idea of paying students for good grades as a form of bribery. When someone comes from this perspective, then it will be seen as wrong in any light. Allowing kids to accept the idea of a monetary bribe in exchange for specific results can prove to be detrimental to their decision-making processes in the future. You never know what someone might agree to do in exchange for the promise of another cash payment. That is why it is imperative to teach students the value of good grades in relation to their future expectations.
3. It only works when the reward has some level of value.
People work hard at any age when they feel that the reward for their work is consistent with the output they present. Students will work for money as long as the amount that they earn for good grades can meet their needs. If there is no incentive to work harder beyond their basic grades, then they won’t do it. Someone with A-grade capability might settle for C-grade results because that’s the amount of money that they want or need. Anything else is a bonus, but they won’t start working hard for it.
4. The best students will still dominate the cash rewards.
The only way that a cash reward system for grades can work is if every student receives an opportunity to earn the same amount. Even when this setup is in place, the students who consistently achieve good grades will still make the most money. Some children may have dyslexia or other learning disabilities that cause them to struggle. Unless there is some way to create a sliding scale of compensation, it may be challenging for some students to maximize results.
If students study harder than those who make good grades and earn less of a financial incentive for their work, then the results of this effort will typically fail.
5. It doesn’t improve student attendance.
There have been a handful of studies over the years that have looked at paying students for their attendance and grades. Chelsea High School in Massachusetts was part of the research ground, handing out students a $25 reward for every perfect attendance record during a school term. They ran the program from 2004-2008, but it produced almost no change to the students’ academic performance or overall attendance.
When younger students receive incentives, the rate of students missing 15+ days during the school year does decrease by up to 10%. The value of the reward determines the results. At Stone Creek Elementary School in Georgia, kids could earn a video game console – a much more exciting prospect.
6. Rewards don’t foster the right attitude for learning.
When students have access to rewards for their schoolwork and grades, then it changes their attitude about learning. Instead of seeking knowledge, kids begin to wonder what is in it for them every time an assignment comes their way. It sends the message that the reason to work hard and stay in school is to make your bank account fatter instead of growing the knowledge you keep in your mind. That also means dangling carrots in front of the kids creates an attitude of manipulation from the adults in the life of each child instead of teaching them the value of a meaningful education.
7. Incentives rob children of intrinsic rewards of learning.
The children who earn rewards for good grades can begin to feel entitled about their payouts. This emotional response will eventually rob the child of their ability to cultivate a new love of learning. It also shifts the sense of responsibility from themselves to others for their own education. Instead of paying for a specific grade that may not represent anything, parents and administrators may find it more useful to help kids develop the personal skills needed to grow in other areas of life.
You can still incentivize children without giving them money. Your home can structure screen time after homework so that you create a when-then culture. “When you get your studies done, then you can have some video game fun. Choose not to rescue them from their poor choices as well so that they will need to organize their time by themselves. Then emphasize the action of learning instead of the specific grades.
8. There is no guarantee that the money would go to useful things.
Students might spend their class earnings of cigarettes or drugs instead of toward items they need for their education. Parents could do the same thing if given the funds instead. This disadvantage could occur in any school district or community because drug addiction is not limited to those with financial disadvantages. That’s why a careful accounting of the money and placement in an account or trust that cannot be touched except by a college, vocational school, or authorized apprenticeship program might be the best way to handle this possible incentive.
Verdict of the Pros and Cons of Paying Students for Grades
Going to school is the “job” of the student. It is not the parent’s responsibility to hold down this position and juggle their career too. At some point in life, a child must make their own decisions about their future. When you can show them that there is a reward for good studying habits (whether the grades come with them or not), then you’re setting them up for a positive life experience.
Paying for grades can provide short-term results in some disadvantaged neighborhoods. It can reduce the need for students to drop out to find a supportive job for their families. These issues may be the exception to the rule of financial support.
The pros and cons of paying students for good grades depends on the effectiveness of the solution. There will be some kids motivated by this approach to learning, but there will also be others who are turned off by the idea of this “bribe.” That is why many schools use positive reinforcement and non-cash-based rewards like books, pencils, or clothing as a way to enhance motivation.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.