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Paying for Good Grades.. Future Work Implications & How Bad is it Really?

June 1, 2010

June 1, 2010:  I’m usually a few weeks (or months) late catching up on all the magazines that are delivered.  So as I was catching up on a past issue of Time magazine  the cover article (“Should Schools Bribe Kids?”) from the April 19, 2010 edition caught my attention.  The article on page 40 titled “Is Cash the Answers?” is about a Harvard professor and scientist who conducted an experiment in four cities testing the validity of using financial incentives in the classroom to motivate children to do better. 

Reading the article brought back the memory of being paid for good grades by my parents.  Oh how we loved report card day!  During my high school years (and my brother’s) my parents paid us $20 for an “A” and $10 for a “B”.  No money was paid for a “C” or lower because a “C” was not acceptable in our house.  As I read the article it hit me that I had never asked my parents why they paid us. 

So I called my dad and asked him about the decision to pay for grades and he said, “Your mother and I paid you because we felt that getting good grades was your job and it was what you were supposed to be focused on.  Remember, we discontinued the allowance with the grade payment.” (Side note – I never remember getting an allowance.)  But my parents didn’t pay for grades in college so I asked why the payments stopped thinking his answer would be that because they were paying for college.  But no, his answer was “we figured you were old enough to figure out how important grades are in college and if you couldn’t figure that out then you shouldn’t be going to college.”  He added, “We actually felt this way your senior year in high school too but decided to pay anyway.”  [For those wondering if grade payment worked my brother and I never made “C’s” and for me – I graduated high school with a small academic scholarship and graduated USC with honors.  That would be the real USC – University of South Carolina.]

At the crux of the argument for or against paying for grades (or paying to show up on time, get perfect attendance, attain a certain score on SAT, etc) is that people should derive instrintic pleasure from the task itself, not the reward that follows according to University of Rochester’s Edward Deci.  He believes that money does not work well to motivate over the long term and people work harder and perform better if they actually enjoy the work, not just the reward.  But as Amanda Ripley, the article author, states “most adults work primarily for money and in a curious way, we seem to be holding kids to a higher standard than we hold ourselves.”

Now I do agree that to truly do what you do well you need to enjoy it on some level and should feel the company you work for values and appreciates your contribution. 

But is incentivizing a sales team with a luxury trip for exceeding sales goals or the potential for an employee to receive a bonus or promotion for exceeding expectations (and in some cases just meeting them) really any different than kids being paid to make good grades?  If adults are motivated to give more at work by the allure of the dangling carrot, why would we expect kids to be any different?  It seems to be a beneficial win-win for all involved.  The company gets better performance, the employees feels recognized for their performance and the kids learn the value of cause and effect – good grades = cold, hard cash.  Through this model we are also conditioning kids to strive to do better after school when they join the workforce, but I guess that means companies will need to keep rewarding with incentives.  I’m thinking this may resonate well with employees and future employees everywhere.   

What do you think?  Please share your comments.

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3 comments

  1. I’d also say it is a form of conditioned response, where we are linking a positive reward with a positive behavior. I’m sure psychologists out there can provide greater insight. As a parent of 4 and 5 year olds, I’m learning how powerful this little trick can be.


  2. I was paid for getting good grades. It was a definite movitating factor for me but did not work so well for my brothers. They did receive money but not as much as me.

    My brothers were bored by the classroom and possibly the teaching style of our teachers which I believe opens a whole other can of worms.

    I did see this video yesterday and though it was good food for thought on this subject – “Science of Motivation”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc&feature=player_embedded


  3. I think that incentivizing for a desired outcome only results in a conditioned response and potentially only for a short period of time.
    I agree that you have to enjoy the work you’re doing or motivation is going to be tough to find. I also think that rewarding kids for good grades sends an expectation they should receive a reward each time they produce a result. When in reality, like you said, good grades are expected. Great work in your career is expected. With the mentality that you should receive an incentive for doing the minimum expectation, hard work will no longer exist.
    There’s no doubt that rewarding for grades works as a motivator, just as comissions motivate a sales person. But I think to the degree it is relied upon in its use as a motivator is what we should really pay attention to.



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