Last month, Transplanted Lawyer linked with modest disapproval to a new idea that’s being tried in schools across the country: Pay students to make good grades. Half Sigma has approvingly nodded to the idea.

Whether paying students for performance is effective or not I do not know. The jury is still out and the results we have so far are not particularly encouraging. Kids generally have short time horizons that make it difficult to tell them that if they work hard for the next six weeks they will get a reward then and only then. A more effective strategy might be an approach measuring small gains. Give them a test at the end of every couple weeks and see how they do. Mark Kleimann has actually recommended doing something like that in lieu of our current standardized testing performance-measuring regime. It could well be true that even paying students for performance will never be more effective than other uses for that money, but I’m all about trying new and different things to see what works. If it doesn’t work, move on to something new.

This post is not an endorsement of this particular strategy. Rather, it’s an objection to an objection to it that I’ve heard so frequently that it’s grated on my nerves. The objection goes like this: If you start paying kids to get good grades, they will do whatever they do for the money and not for their future or for the sake of actually learning.

I don’t know what my IQ is, but I think it’s fair to say that I would be somewhere in the top-third of the curve. I am also an intellectually curious person that spends a lot of time thinking about things and probably spend more time than most people out of school learning stuff. My High School GPA was solid if unremarkable at one of the more competitive public high schools in the city and I graduated with membership in the honors college of my alma mater. None of this is spectacular, but even if I’m not remarkable I have achieved more than the vast majority of people my age.

I say this not to brag (again, not spectacular), but to get to an important point: Despite having turned out much like my parents and school system had hoped, I couldn’t have cared a camel’s lick about learning when I was in K-12. I didn’t start enjoying learning for the sake of learning until I was at least a couple years past teachers and professors trying to thrust knowledge upon me. I learned what I learned for one major reason: to get good grades. And I didn’t get good grades to go to a great university or so that I could get a great job. I got good grades for one major reason: my parents expected it of me.

I did what I did for parental approval. My parents (particularly my father) had tremendous moral authority and their approval was very important to me. Getting good grades got positive results. Bad grades got negative results. Had my parents not taken this attitude, I might well have dropped out of school altogether as soon as legally capable. More to the point, had my parents not had the respect from me that they did (a respect that they did not just demand, but earned), I would not have turned out so well. Had my parents not had the time and money to monitor my progress and to assure me that I would be going to college like everybody else, things might have been different. While maybe it would have been preferable if I’d had my own ambitions and thirst for learning at a young age, the fact that I did what I did because I was (in a sense) manipulated to do it does not matter one fraction as much as the fact that I did it, regardless of my motivations. Further, had my parents relied on me to want to learn for its own sake or for my own ambition so that I’d do the right thing for the “right reason”, I would almost certainly have done the wrong thing and my reasoning would be moot.

A lot of kids don’t have my parents. They may have parents that have an abstract desires that their children go to a good college, but they don’t have a clear roadmap of what to expect when. Or they don’t have the time to monitor their kids as my parents monitored me. Or they didn’t have the moral authority to demand it or the consistency to apply the right pressures at the right time. And much like me, they don’t have the future time orientation to do all the right things on their own accord. Maybe it would be ideal if they had any and all of these things, but they don’t. And stripping them of any other motivation won’t necessarily give it to them.

To bring it to something that adults can relate to, it’s like going to work. Ideally speaking, we should go to work because we enjoy it or are making a valuable contribution to society or industry and we should consider that enough. Mostly, though, we do it to get paid. Otherwise, we’d be in a nation of 50 million writers, 20 million musicians, and no janitors. I really don’t know what position we are in to say that money should not be a sufficient motivator.

As I said above, this is not an endorsement of pay-for-performance with students. I don’t know if it works or not or whether it can be tweaked to work or not. Even if it can be tweaked, there are some questions of fairness if you give it to kids that go to this school but not kids that go to that one. And there are questions about whether we want kids to get money bypassing their parents entirely because they could likely find some destructive uses for it. But the notion that it provides bad incentives and is bad on that basis is ignoring the lack of good motivations that the vast majority of young people have.

Category: School

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5 Responses to No Love of Education

  1. Transplanted Lawyer says:

    If you start paying kids to get good grades, they will do whatever they do for the money and not for their future or for the sake of actually learning.

    This is not quite my objection. My objection is that once this incentive is taken away, whatever learning was taking place beforehand will cease — and providing this incentive an unsustainable proposition.

    With that said, the example of your education is such that adding money to the equation would not have affected your behavior all that much, either. You did what you did to seek parental approval and build a mutuality of respect with your parents — which had, at its foundation, a true respect by your parents for the inherent value of education, even if that was not a norm you adhered to until later in life. Neither parental approval, nor respect for education as an inherent good, require a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

  2. trumwill says:

    Money wouldn’t have motivated me in the circumstances in which I was raised, but if I didn’t have the parents that I do, it likely would have. It would be ideal if more kids could have parents that were both as interested and respectable as mine, but they don’t. And we can’t make it so.

    So what do we do? Maybe pay-for-grades is an answer, maybe not.

    Maybe even if it does work it’ll only work in the short term. I don’t think that’s necessarily so, though. One of the big things that happened to me is that once I proved that I could do it, my standards were raised. At one point I thought I was a C and D student. Parental involvement did more than motivate me to become an A and B student, (a) it showed me that I could do it and (b) motivated me to learn how to do it. It demonstrated that cause-and-effect of doing my homework, studying for tests, and so on. Things that should have been bloody obvious, but weren’t.

    I could see money having the same effect on at least some young people. Or maybe it wouldn’t. I really don’t know.

    I’m not entirely clear at what point you think it would cease. Are you talking about the money being used to pay kids running out or about them graduating to the point that they are no longer paid for it?

    In case of the former, If it can be worked to be successful (a big “if”, to be sure), I don’t know why it can’t be sustainable. We’ve demonstrated a willingness to spend extraordinary amounts of money on schools. This could well be a part of that. I think that the goal here would be to determine if it works and if it does, then school districts can start giving money directly to students to learn rather than throwing it 100 different directions to try to get students to do the same.

    In case of the latter, I would argue that you would want to do it K-12, but after high school motivations start working themselves out. College is its own motivation for those so inclined. Parental involvement was all-important to me in K-12, but relatively unimportant for college (except that they paid for it!). Those that can’t get motivated by college aren’t going to make it anyway. Then there’s the working world, where most of us are paid to learn (and do, but to do you have to learn) every day.

  3. Webmaster says:

    When I was a kid, there were perks to getting good grades – lots of businesses handed the local school freebie coupons to give the kids who made honor roll, things like a free ice cream cone, or pizza hut pizza, or discount waterpark/themepark entry for summer.

    It worked for the kids as an incentive, it worked for the businesses as advertising because the kids would need parental chaperones. I think that’s a better way than just “paying” the kids, get the local businesses in and do some outreach and set up a win-win scenario.

    The flipside – tying teacher pay to the kids’ performance on standardized tests – is ABHORRENT. One really, really bad troublemaker can ruin a class, and it does nothing to solve the real problem we have wherein we fail to stratify the kids and get the smarter ones away from the lesser brains and the malcontents, and into classes where they can learn at their own pace rather than our current “at the pace of the slowest idiot” standard.

    Spungen’s either going to yell at me for that comment, or congratulate me. I don’t know which. I just know that our schools have to be able to hold kids back a grade or three, and also get them away from the other kids whose education they are negatively impacting in order to make the system better overall.

  4. Peter says:

    I just know that our schools have to be able to hold kids back a grade or three

    My answer is a resounding “maybe.” Having the ability to hold kids back is important. Children mature at different rates and sometimes just aren’t ready to move up. Having attended school when “staying back” was still a common, though declining, practice, I also saw a major downside. Being held back reinforced a sense of failure in more than a few kids and, I am convinced, caused them to struggle thereafter and even in a couple cases drop out at 16. If schools are allowed to hold students back, the power must be used very, very carefully.

  5. trumwill says:

    I agree with Web on the issue of tracking. Also agree, but to a lesser extent, on paying teachers for student perfomance when the composition of the class can make such a tremendous difference.

    As far as holding kids back goes, I think Peter is right that you would want to be selective about it. You also have a problem in K-5 with holdbacks terrorizing younger students. That becomes less of an issue as a single year stops making such a big difference. Holding back is less of a problem in junior high and high school, though, because as more kids from different grades take classes together, it’s not so apparent who is in what grade so it’s not quite so shameful.

    I liked the way my school district handled the kids that seemed unusually averse to learning (and behaving) by shipping them off to a separate school and getting them out of the rest of our way. I think that they usually did that by default for anyone that failed more than a single grade. Also anyone that dropped out and came back or, more controversially (and less justifiably) got pregnant. Seemed to me like the place would be hell on earth, but the people I know that went there really didn’t have much in the way of complaints. I never really understood that.

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