Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Should one pay kids for good grades?

Money for grades: good or evil?

There is no question that people will work hard for money at any age. So why not take your lazy under performing school kid and incentivize them?! Throw big bucks at the problem. Hey kid, what do you say to a week's pocket money every time you pull down an A!

Around the country as school performance is spotlighted by disappointing standardized test results, cash-based incentives are being tried out. These projects are highly controversial and the majority of parents do not believe in them.

What does the relevant science tell us about using money to encourage studying. In general terms, this issue was addressed by psychologists many decades ago. Motivation experts concluded that although tangible rewards can motivate children to work harder, there is an undesirable side effect. External rewards sap children's internal interest in learning. This means that once the reward system ends, children study less and their grades fall. Praise supports studying without reducing children's internal motivation to learn.

In one charming early experiment, children were given felt-tipped pens to play with, an activity that most enjoyed. Half of the children were than paid for playing with the pens. Would the money make them enjoy playing with pens more, or less. The evidence was clear. Children who had been paid lost interest in the pens whereas the unpaid control group continued scribbling with enthusiasm. Play had been turned into work.

Some scholars are appalled that we are once again trying to pay children for improved school performance and attribute recent programs to collective amnesia. A more likely reason is that economics professors have succeeded in finding funds for new research on educational incentives and they have not fully assimilated the relevant psychological findings.

In one program, funded by Exxon Corp., students in 67 high schools in 6 states are being paid for passing Advanced Placement exams. According to results published by C. Kirabo Jackson, on the Texas Advanced Placement program, the number of students taking AP tests increased steadily following implementation of the program when compared to schools not providing cash.

Public schools are also experimenting with cash for grades. In New York City's Spark program, a fourth grader can earn up to $250 and a seventh grader twice as much. Chicago's Paper Project allows ninth and tenth graders to earn as much as $2,000 per year (average $800).

These programs and others were designed by Roland Fryer, an economics professor at Harvard University who has yet to publish the results, it seems. Even though Fryer's data are not in, prior research by psychologists allows us to make an educated guess about what the results might be.

First, if there is a very low level of interest in school, motivation for study should improve. Second, for subjects that students love to hate, such as math, scores should improve. Third, for more popular subjects there will be little effect. Fourth, once the incentive program ends, grades will fall in all subjects. Finally, students who participate in the program will experience an enduring loss of interest in learning for its own sake.

That is quite a millstone to carry in a knowledge-based economy. Praise your children for good grades but don't pay them.