Pay for Good Grades in Texas ~ Will It Happen and, If So, Will It Work?

“The king will answer them saying, ‘I tell you with certainty, since you did it for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me’.”

Matthew 25:40 (International Standard Version)

opaI heard on the news the other day that one of our Texas state lawmakers, Joe Deshotel from Beaumont, filed a bill recently that would create a pilot program designed to pay cash to students at low-performing schools for good grades in core subjects. I was not surprised to read in the Ft. Worth Star Telegram that Representative Deshotel is a Democrat.

 According to the article, under Deshotel’s plan, freshmen could earn $50 for each “A,” $35 for each “B,” and $20 for each “C” in English, math, science or social studies. They would get half their money at the end of each grading period and the other half at graduation. They would also receive college and career counseling through the program. Funding would come from $6 billion in federal stimulus money the state is planning to use on education. The article did not include an estimate for the program’s cost – but it did initiate an interesting debate in our household. The issues discussed by my wife and me were: Would such a program work at all? Would it or could it be administered fairly? And what would the long-term effects be? Would students become dependent on near-term rewards, less able to postpone gratification as adults?

I admitted to my wife and I admit to you now that I don’t know the answers. But, as a teacher of economics for senior high students and as a parent of three grown sons, I am keenly aware of the critical need that young people have for near-term incentives. That’s why in the classroom I sometimes reward my students with small treats, Hersey kisses and various other small candies when they are able to answer review questions correctly. They seem to get a kick out of the competition for rewards — it makes it more like a game, and kids love games. If  they offer a second correct answer when nobody else’s hand goes up, I encourage them to share their second treat with another student so that nobody gets left out and so that nobody gets too much sugar. Controversial? Yes, but it really seems to stimulate interest and motivate students to participate.  And after seven years of teaching, no parent has ever objected. Praise may be enough for some, but certainly not enough for all, especially for those in class who are more academically challenged and seldom experience it.

Although my wife and I could have done so, we never offered our boys monetary rewards for good grades. Some of our friends did though and, as I think back about it, their kids always seemed to do well while ours, despite their intelligence and abilities, passed with mediocre grades and sometimes failed.  Hmmm…. we praised them when they did well, sure, and admonished them when they didn’t. But I suspect now that we’d have done far better as parents to give the pay for good grades idea a try. Many parents, especially in this economy, don’t have the means and so, don’t have a choice.

 There are pay-for-grades programs in place in Chicago, Baltimore, New York, Tucson, and Washington D.C. – I remember reading about Mayor Bloomberg initiating a pilot program with his own money a couple of years ago for kids from poor families in underperforming schools in New York. I’d be interested to know just how it and like-programs in other cities have been working — I haven’t heard, nor have I found conclusive study results. I’ve searched the Internet for answers finding studies and arguments both pro and con. The studies, however, all seem to have been planned and conducted to confirm biases already held.

According to an August 2008 USA TODAY article, a Harvard economist, Roland Fryer, who serves as the New York City Schools’ chief equality officer, came up with the idea two years ago while trying to figure out how to make school “tangible” for disadvantaged kids, kids who have few successful role models. “I just thought that giving them some short-term incentives to do what’s in their long-term best interests would be a good way to go. The two-year old New York City experiment pays students monthly to do their best on skills tests, and it has been making a difference. “While teachers talk about success,” Mr. Fryer said, “it’s not enough to tell a kid that, in the long term, hard work will pay off. We’re asking them to look down a path that they have probably never seen anyone go down … and then to have the wisdom and the fortitude to wait for their reward.”

Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College according to and article in the AP Texas News,, has said, “There is no strong research to show the incentives work, and some research shows such incentives can lead students to underperform,” said Barry Schwartz, who has spoken out against paying students for grades. “The downside to this is being ignored by those who support it,” he said, “which is that once kids become accustomed to this, they become dependent. They’ll want someone walking behind them the rest of their lives with an M&M to make sure they are rewarded for everything they do.”

So, okay, the pay-for-grades idea may be dumb. On the other hand, it might just be brilliant. Put five economists, or educators for that matter, in a room and they’ll come up with six different answers to a problem.

Spending our education stimulus money on higher teachers’ salaries won’t make much difference, I don’t think, at least in the near-term. Teach as hard as you can and as good as you can, the student who isn’t motivated to learn is still going to drop out. And sprucing up facilities with a fresh coat of paint or buying more computers won’t do much toward motivating the marginal students, the ones we’re losing in Texas by the groves. That’s where the real problem is. It isn’t with the middle class students whose families would pull them out of our public schools if only they were just a little bit more well-to-do. So please don’t anybody suggest the money should go to vouchers. Therefore, I think we ought to give the congressman’s proposal a fair try. It just feels like the Christian thing to do. His plan, after all, according to the Ft. Worth Star Telegram article, is a pilot program only, intended for high school freshman in underperforming schools so that we can gauge the worthiness of the idea. “If it does help cut down the dropout rate, which is unacceptably high in Texas,” said Deshotel, “then we can look at expanding it.”

Despite my reasoning, my guess is that the Republican-led congress in Austin won’t spend much time debating this.

Wha’da y’all think? I invite your comments, regardless of your politics.

Published in: on March 15, 2009 at 12:59 pm  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Aaah Kent, you did open a can of worms! I would like to debate this with you face to face as there isn’t enough space for me to air my views on this subject. I agree with you about teachers and sprucing up school property but I still think parents should become parents and to be supported by other parents but there is another side to this also. Maybe, we can have dinner and engage in a real down to earth dialog.

    Thanks for the wonderful article. It really gave me pause to think.

  2. In my opinion paying students for their grade ,however ludicrous may actually work. Some people believe that students shouldn’t be paid for school. But it might actually give the possible drop outs some incentive to stay in school.It could even help pregnant teens or teens with babies be able to support their babies while staying in school. Most drop outs drop out because they need money to support themselves or even a child and the only way to do that is to get a full time job, and they cant do that while in school. So with schools paying these students they wouldn’t need to drop out.

  3. I don’t think that freshman students should get paid to make better grades. Some people will get it in their heads, “Hey if I go to school and make decent grades I get money.” Thats like bribing the whole freshman student body into doing something they need to learn on their own. So its important for people to learn on their own because they would expect people to throw money at them when they do something so small. Its just going to be another excuse that teenagers will use to get something that really means nothing to them now versus later. I could see some benefits in the proposal, however. Its like having a job because they would have to work to get money. Some will think that “Hey, I wouldn’t have to get get a job because I’m getting paid to make (again) decent grades.” But what if after their freshman year students will get lazy or drop out? What would you do then? But then we all need see how it works out in the long run.

  4. This program for giving kids money i think is a good idea because thats really what kids want, especialy in high school. And really thats why most high school students drop out: to get a job and make money. Either because there having a baby or because they just need the money. You can see this in all high schools. if this would to happend they will see that there geting money both ways staying in school and also having a part time job thats most people, Another reason would be that they just dont like school and this might be a good way to motivate them to stay in school, knowing they could earn money by going to school and after there night grade year. i dont belive that theres not going to be drop outs because there might be but i dont belive there’s going to be as much and also why would they drop out? all that knowledge they gained there night grade year i belive that they would want to gain more and not just settle for what they have.

  5. Excellent goods from you, man. I have understand your stuff previous to and you’re just extremely great. I actually like what you’ve acquired here,
    really like what you’re saying and the way in which you say it. You make it entertaining and you still take care of to keep it wise. I can not wait to read far more from you. This is really a wonderful site.

  6. Wow! Thanks so much. I will consider a new post for tomorrow — perhaps one one the subject du jour: gun control.

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