What is wrong with paying children for good grades?

cashI admit — I find the idea of paying children for good academic performance really distasteful.  If I listened only to my intuitions, I might even denounce such “learn and earn” programs that are being piloted in some school districts around the country as immoral.

But why?  Is my reaction rational?

As a society, we already offer plenty of financial rewards for good grades in the form of merit or academic schoalrships.  The requirements for those programs seem perfectly legitimate and do not set off any moral alarm bells.  This suggests that it is not the monetary reward that I find troubling.

There are some obvious differences between a merit scholarship and the learn-and-earn programs.  Merit scholarships reward long-term effort and not individual grades.  They are usually given to older students while learn-and-earn programs are sometimes given to middle or even elementary schoolers.  Merit scholarships usually reward something “above and beyond” what average students can achieve, while learn-and-earn programs reward more basic things like attending class.  Finally, scholarships are usually competitive.  Learn-and-earn, as the name implies, works like an entitlement.  If the student gets the grade, then he or she will have “earned” the money.

Merit scholarships and learn-and-earn programs simply have different goals.  Scholarships reward a proven track record of success and achievements above and beyond that of an average student.  Because of their remoteness and uncertainty, they don’t function very well as incentives for learning.  In contrast, the reward in learn-and-earn programs is usually immediate, tangible, and discrete.  It does a much better job at incentivizing the behavior that these programs are designed to encourage.

This is why we often see dramatic results in such programs.  But this is probably also precisely why we are troubled by the ideas of such programs.

Almost all opposition to paying cash rewards for good grades comes from the argument that it creates the wrong incentive to learn.  Learning should be an end in itself.  It should bring reward and joy all on its own.  It should be a wonderful process of discovering the world around you, and the world within you.  it should be motivated by only a love of knowledge.  It therefore corrupts and debases the whole process if learning is motivated by the promise of cash.  This is why some commentators have called such programs “briberies.”  My distaste for cash payment for students comes precisely from this kind of romanticized vision of what education should be.

But I think this argument has two flaws: it’s unrealistic, and it sets up the wrong dichotomy.  First, both children and adults learn for various and complicated reasons: for approval, for social status, for better opportunities of career and job, and, yes, for money, at least the prospect of earning more of it.  Obviously not everyone, even the successful students, learn out of a pure love of knowledge.  Why are those goals okay and learning for pure cash, not?

Second, although it does seem better to learn out of a unquenchable thirst for knowledge than to learn only for the promise of cash, that is often not the choices that educators say they have.  The choice they face is between students not learning at all, and learning, grudgingly but effectively, out of an incentive for cash.  Indeed, the schools that have piloted the learn-and-earn programs successfully usually had students from poverty-stricken neighborhoods, absent parents, and rampant crime problems.  To demand that these students learn only out of a love of knowledge or be left behind in failure seems equally distasteful.

Given those realistic options, should we still insist upon our romanticized version of education?  You decide.

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2 Responses

  1. Interesting post, Greta. I would like to offer another thought, from Aristotle, in favor of these rewards.

    One of the persistent questions in moral philosophy is how we can consistently align our behavior with the good. Kant offered us moral reflection and the power of rationality to both recognize and conform ourselves to the categorical imperative. But Aristotle, more pragmatic on this count, suggested that good and virtuous acts are learned by habit and practice, and suggested we emulate those whom we already identify as good.

    So, in this context, the thought is that money rewards might instill in the students a love for knowledge, which, although it came about by a need for money, might turn out, from the sheer practice of learning, to a love for knowledge as an end in and of itself.

  2. I agree with you, Adam. I think Aristotle was on to an important psychology insight that is being studied by psychologists and behavioral scientists right now — people are not very good judges of predicting what they will like and what will make them truly happy, until they have tried it and developed good (virtuous) habits. I think part of what makes students (and adults!) unwilling to work is a fear of failure and lack of interest. Once they are spurred to study by monetary incentives, and experienced success as a result, they may find that the subject of the academic studies actually fascinates them and that they enjoy the feeling of accomplishment.

    In a Reuters article about the learn-and-earn program, one student said this:

    “‘At first I didn’t like school, but now that I am bringing up my grades, I
    like school more and want to go to high school and college,” said one
    eighth-grade program participant.'”

    I think a love of learning may very well be a “side effect” of the learn-and-earn programs.

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