Paying for A’s:  the cases for and against giving kids money for good grades

With a new school year come new goals and expectations for performance, and occasionally, disappointment. In today’s high-stakes, high-competition environment, an “off” grade or two can send parents into doom-and-gloom mode, scrambling for a quick solution. They may even consider paying students for good grades. Does it work?

Some call it “bribes,” others, a sad state of affairs, if by another name. Still others simply say, “Why not? After all, grown-ups get paid for their work.” A percentage of college students today had parents—or had friends whose parents—incented them during high school or even earlier to get good grades by paying a set dollar amount for each goal grade earned.

Research and expert opinion vary considerably. Sure, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Money often costs too much,” but for good or bad, it—and the things it buys—do tend to get our attention, even at a fairly young age. And Demetria Gallegos, writing for the Wall Street Journal, puts a positive spin on paying for grades. In her article, “Should You Pay a Kid for Getting Good Grades?”, she says that although she doesn’t pay cash, she does promise outings or objects of desire for straight A's or relative improvement at school,” and she suggests that giving kids material reward isn’t corrupting them but motivating them.

Time magazine published a photo-rich essay a few years ago, titled, “Paying Kids for Good Grades: Does It Work?” The title is a bit of a misnomer. For one thing, the first school that was studied had incented not just grades but “metrics like attendance, behavior, tests and class work.” Also, the results varied, making the question posed in the title unanswerable, minus significant qualification. The experiment saw different results in each city, and on average, boys responded better than girls.

Using private money, “the study was organized by a Harvard economist named Roland Fryer” and conducted in Washington D.C., Dallas, New York and Chicago. Responding to the mixed results, the article says, “Part of the difference, Fryer thinks, is the way the money was distributed. When the money was given for something every student could do, like reading books or attending class, the results were stronger than they were when the money was given for more intangible tasks, like achieving better grades.”

In 2012 Suzanna de Baca, also reporting for Time, published “Paying Kids for Grades: What to Consider Before Promising Your Kids Cash for A’s.” In it she suggests a series of questions parents ask themselves before paying for grades, including “What am I trying to achieve?” and “What message am I sending about education?” She also notes that “Research indicates that extrinsic rewards don’t necessarily motivate a child to perform better in school.” She references an article in the Journal of Educational Psychology suggesting that “paying kids for grades can work, but only for a small portion of students and then only for a limited time.”

The jury’s still out on the wisdom of paying for grades. Like so many other things, parents need to reach their own answers. However, just about every child—and adult, too, for that matter—responds well to praise and “gold stars,” either literal or figurative. Often, it’s little things that go a long way in motivating kids. Love of learning is cultivated early, and so is motivation.

For example, find more than a dozen sets of free worksheets geared toward preschoolers, each of which come with a “Great Job!” completion reward certificate that can be proudly displayed on a wall, bulletin board, or refrigerator. Plus, apps such as Alphabet Express for Mac and iOS have pages that can be emailed (think “Grandma and Grandpa”) for sharing and printing to encourage little ones to practice letters of the alphabet.