Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What's Wrong With Cash for Grades?

     Do you see anything wrong with parents giving their children money for good grades?  What about schools?  Those question were explored recently on one of my favorite podcasts - Freakonomics Radio. Steve Levitt was discussing (as he put it) "bribing kids to do better in school".

     He and some colleagues conducted an experiment in three Chicago schools where they gave students $20 on the spot if they improved their performance from the last time they took a test. The students had no prior notice they would be offered a reward, so the study just measured how cash incentives influenced effort at the time of the task. (I can just imagine the looks on their faces when a $20 bill was placed on their desks - LOL!) 

     Researchers also studied the effects of other types of rewards (some were given less money, some were just given trophies or trinkets) and when the reward was given to the student.

The results are fascinating......
  • Gains are only seen when you give students the reward right away - a month later doesn't work.
  • Trophies and trinkets worked for younger students (Grades 2-4) but only money worked for older students (Grades 5+).
  • Effort improves most when you give students the prize first and then take it back if they don't improve - referred to as "loss aversion" theory.
  • The effects are seen more on Math tests than Reading tests.
  • Boys are far more responsive to any type of incentive. As Levitt says, "boys basically completely slack off unless the stakes are really high." Whoa......
(To download the full paper, just click here.) 

As Levitt and others have argued, if you pay students for good grades, they'll have a little push to build up good habits and hopefully those will persist beyond their school years.

So what does this mean for educators?  Should we run to the Dollar Store to stock up on trophies and other prizes? I'm not so sure..... I'd be happy if parents offered ANY consistent incentive for their children to do well in school. 

So what do you think?  Is cash for good grades a good idea?  What incentives do you offer in your classroom?


  1. What a fascinating podcast. I loved that the boys were more responsive...no surprise there. I also thought it was really interesting that ONLY money worked for grades 5+. Rewards are such a tricky thing. I do use a treasure box, but I hadn't at my old school. I found that students who had a very supportive home environment and parents that expected good grades/behavior at school, didn't benefit from the treasure box. They just didn't need it. Perhaps because their parents were consistent in offering some kind of reward outside of the classroom. However at my current school where we see very little to no parent involvement, the treasure box is essential. My students need lots of motivation and encouragement from me because they don't seem to get enough if any at home. Money for grades? Tough call but certainly an interesting concept. I suppose it would depend on the kid and the circumstance. Great post!!

    The Teaching Thief

    1. Thanks, Amanda - podcasts make my commute bearable and I learn something in the process. I agree totally about when rewards work - if there's support at home, most kids are already giving you what they've got.


  2. Very interesting post. I have heard of the idea of getting paid for grades being piloted in various places. I do not agree with this idea. I think we should be teaching our students to become more self motivated. We should be teaching them to have a strong work ethic. If students are rewarded for everything they do they will begin to think that this is the way the world works and from my experience we would be sending them the wrong message.
    I am extremely self motivated and think everyone should be. However, I know that many students are not self motivated. So I am sometimes forced to use external rewards, but it is usually an activity of some sort: lunch with me, extra recess, time in the computer lab, etc. I also show my students how they are growing throughout the quarter and make a pretty big deal out of it. I think they enjoy this celebration and look forward to being able to show how much they can approve on the next assignment.
    I understand the reasoning behind paying for better grades, but I am just not a fan of it. I do however like the fact they based it off of growth rather than just a specific grade. This allows for all students to have a chance to win. I absolutely hate when people reward students for getting A's when getting an A is effortless for many students.
    Thanks for sharing this post.


    1. Thanks, Katrina. I agree about showing children their own growth. We are always graphing and charting grades in my class. :-)



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