Bribing Students to Get Good Grades: The Debate

Updated July 05, 2016 |
Bribing Students to Get Good Grades: The Debate
Some public schools are experimenting with rewarding their students for scoring well on exams. Learn about whether this controversial strategy is working.
Students are often given rewards by parents when they bring home a good report card. High school students who excel in academics, sports or other activities are often given monetary incentives to go to particular colleges in the form of scholarships. Why not pay students in primary and secondary schools for making the grade as well?
Studies have recently been conducted to determine whether monetary rewards by the school district would motivate at-risk students to achieve better in school. While results of these studies have been mixed, the debate over the idea is unmistakable. Although some believe that any method of enticing kids to perform well in school is fair game, others see paying cash for grades as an unnecessary way to encourage students to do what they should already be achieving. Who's right? Let's take a look at both sides of the debate to see.
The Four-City Study
Harvard economist Roland Frye recently conducted a test to find out if offering students monetary rewards for performing well in school could bring up scores on standardized tests. Frye's results of his research were published in Time last spring. The study looked at schools in four major cities across the United States: Chicago, Dallas, Washington and New York.
In New York, fourth through seventh-grade students were paid for the grades they earned on tests. In Chicago, ninth-grade kids were paid for the grades on their report cards. In Washington, middle schoolers earned money based on five different metrics, including behavior and attendance. Second-graders in Dallas were paid for every book they read and computerized test they took on the book.
The study found that the students who were paid for test scores and grades in New York and Chicago did not improve their performance on standardized tests. The Washington students who were rewarded for attendance and behavior showed some improvement on their standardized reading tests, but the biggest gains were seen in the Dallas kids. These second-graders who were encouraged to read more books in class showed marked improvement in their standardized reading exams.
In a piece in the Washington Post, it was also noted that the students in Washington who showed the biggest gains in test scores were those who are normally the hardest to reach. Boys responded better than girls and the kids with a history of behavioral problems saw the biggest improvement overall.
Toronto Following Suit?

Because of the results of studies like the one above, other schools with a high percentage of at-risk students are also looking at the addition of monetary rewards to motivate children to perform better in schools. According to the Toronto Star, Toronto's public school board is also considering a program to pay kids in disadvantaged areas to do well in school as a part of an anti-poverty plan.  
The argument in Toronto is that the schools in this city were designed to cater to middle-class students. Those who don't fall into this category may be at a disadvantage. Jan Olsen, a Barrie principal, told the Star, "We need to change the system so everybody can learn." Olsen recently banned homework at his school because he was concerned that it wasn't fair for children who did not have support at home – or even a home to go to after school.
Motivation or Bribery?

While numerous school districts are considering monetary rewards for students, others are likening the idea to bribing students with money that could otherwise go to reducing class sizes and improving the quality oftechnology in the classroom. In an op-ed piece on Forbes, Diane Ravitch makes the case that in other countries, students must pay to go to the best secondary schools if they want to make it into the technology colleges after graduation. If these students scrimp and save to make opportunity for themselves, what are we teaching our children by paying them to do something they are expected to do anyway?
At the end of her piece, Ravitch asks, "Does the future belong to those who struggle to better themselves, make sacrifices to do so and work hard? Or to those who must be cajoled and bribed to learn anything at all?"
The debate continues over whether students should receive financial gain when they perform well in public schools. This idea of monetary reward is just one more innovative solution that can and should be explored to its fullest if we are to truly make our educational system equitable for every student who attends. While a case may be made for the detriment of bribing students to make grades, it doesn't change the fact that the world of public education has plenty of room for improvement today.

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