The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Paying Students for Good Grades

Should school children be paid for good grades?

Now I don't claim to be an A-student
But I'm trying to be
For maybe by being an A-student, baby,
I can win your love for me.

—Sam Cooke

A friend recently drew my attention to an article on the Time magazine website about ambitious programs in schools across the country that pay students for doing what we want students to do: achieve good grades, get high test scores, attend classes, stay out of fights, and the like.

Sometimes the programs work as intended, sometimes not. There are plenty of subtleties and nuances in the results, depending on the city, the gender of the child, the reward scheme, and - most interestingly to me - just what activities earned paychecks. Apparently, the children have to be capable of the activity in question for rewards to influence it. Well, duh!

Paying students to get good grades doesn't have any effect if they have no idea about how to get good grades. Paying them to attend class or to read books - behaviors in the repertoire of most students - was more likely to have a positive effect.

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As you can imagine, these programs are controversial. Indeed, the title of this article was "Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?" which sums up one perspective on the endeavor. I admit that my immediate reaction to these programs was negative. They just don't seem like the "right" thing to do.

But I read the article while taking breaks from my annual routine of preparing income tax returns, which if nothing else remind me that I am paid (bribed?) for what I do as a teacher, researcher, writer, and speaker. Being paid for doing what I do strikes me as very much the "right" thing, so why should school children be different?

That's a rhetorical question, of course, and there are obvious differences between school children and working adults.

The article has kept me thinking, because these programs, at least at face value, embody a positive psychology heresy. A well-established line of research shows that extrinsic rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation. In a representative study, children are given rewards for what they spontaneously do; after some period of time, the rewards are withdrawn. And the children stop doing what they had previously done without a reward!

Do the "pay for grades" programs therefore undermine the intrinsic motivation of students to do well at school? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. The students in these programs may or may not have intrinsic motivation in the first place. Indeed, we can assume that many of them do not (for whatever reasons); they tend to be students in schools where the overall performance is poor. Paying them cannot undermine motives that do not exist.

Maybe that's why the programs sometimes work. Intrinsic motivation is desirable, but if it's not there, maybe external rewards can jumpstart "good" performance among students. As I see it, the issue is not incentives per se. The issue instead is whether incentives stay in place.

The hope embedded in these programs, I think, is that once students are encouraged to do what we want them to do, these activities will take on a life of their own and continue without incentives. The research jury is out on that one.

Of course, the very large issue is how to raise our children in ways that programs like these - whether or not they work - are not needed.

Reference

Ripley, Amanda (2010, April, 8). Should kids be bribed to do well in school? Time. Document available at http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1978589,00.html.

 

 

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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