Should You Pay for Grades?

Just last week I had a parent ask me about the best ways to motivate her 9th grade daughter. Sheila was exasperated. She’d tried everything to get her daughter to care about her grades – from rewarding with prizes to punishing. The only thing she hadn’t tried was paying for report card grades. She said her friends did it regularly and their kids seemed to be motivated. Sheila was open to anything that might help to turn her daughter around.

Her quandary isn’t a unique one nor is the practice of paying for grades. The Washington DC area is no doubt a highly competitive place to live and we have many students who thrive in our fast paced lifestyle. But we also have some students who happily take the “path of least resistance”. These are the kids who do the bare minimum to get by.

So the question is – should parents pay their kids to get good report card grades? And is this practice an effective motivator?

Here’s the Skinny:

Over the years, research studies have shown that in order for rewards to work they must be immediate and consistent. Based on the research, paying for report card grades is not a good idea because the reward is too far away. Students who struggle to stay motivated on a day-to-day basis certainly aren’t going to muster up enough energy to sustain their best effort for an entire nine week quarter.

I would also argue that many students truly do not know what it takes to earn top grades. They often lack appropriate study skills and struggle to stay organized and manage their time effectively. It’s unrealistic to expect an underperforming student to miraculously turn their academic career around with the lure of a dollar.

What the Research Says – This is VERY Interesting!

Richard Fryer, an economist at Harvard, was compelled to solve the achievement gap. He wondered if rewarding kids for grades could make a difference in standardized test scores. He created four reward schemes in four different cities for a one year period. Here’s what he did and what he found out:

New York City: Students were paid for higher standardized test scores. There was no effect on performance.

Chicago: Students were paid for higher grades. Interestingly, attendance records and grades improved, but standardized test scores did not go up.

Washington DC: Students were paid for good attendance, refraining from fighting, and other good behaviors. There was only a modest improvement on test scores.

Dallas: Students were paid for each book they read. This reward system provided the greatest benefit. Test scores went up the most with this group.

Why did the Dallas incentive program work the best? It’s because the reward was the most immediate (as compared to others), students knew they’d get the reward, and most importantly, they felt it was in their power to do the task (read the book).

What Does This Have to Do with Motivating My Child?

Last year, I met a well-intentioned parent who was so distraught over her sixth grade daughter’s school performance, that she offered her a trip to Disney World if she got straight As. It didn’t work. Actually, it began to work. Her daughter was diligent with her homework for about three days, but her motivation slowly waned. Although the reward was certainly alluring, it was too far in the future. So mom changed her strategy. She began rewarding for daily accomplishments. She took the emphasis off grades (the product) and put them on homework effort (the process). After all, in order to have a good product, you must have a solid process.

Here’s how she did it, in her own words:

“I realized that yelling at my daughter wasn’t working. I’d yell at her to ‘get organized’ but she was still as sloppy as ever.  My husband and I set up a basic folder system for her that was a lot simpler than what she had. Each night, one of us would spend five minutes helping her to sort her papers. After a few weeks, she did not need our help as much (nor did she want it!)”

“For studying, I realized that she had no clue. If she had a social studies test, she would say she ‘studied in class’ or ‘already knew it’ when I knew she didn’t. I used to say ‘I better see you studying for that test!!’ but now I ask ‘How are you going to study? Can you show me?’ Having her explain her process to me gets her to think about the ways her teacher has taught her to review the material and what she and I have practiced together.”

“And the last thing I did was have a set time for homework for a minimum of 45 minutes. Before I’d always hear ‘I don’t have any homework’, but now she’s responsible for doing something academic during this time. It’s interesting. I haven’t given her lots of prizes, but I have been more cognizant about telling her that I’m impressed by her effort. She likes that.”

What If I Have an Older Child?

Simply deemphasizing report card grades and putting the focus on process is important. High schoolers usually don’t want their parents involved with homework, but parents can ask two questions, “What do you have and when will you do it?” The biggest problem that older students face is procrastination. By asking when homework will be started, you’re opening up the dialogue with regards to time management. I’ve found that homework quality improves greatly when students start homework before dinner. Beginning too late in the evening results in greater stress, late nights, poor work quality, and a very tired kid the next day.

Instead of paying for your teen’s good grades, consider granting privileges such as a trip to the mall or a football game once you’re fairly certain their homework is done.