Paying students to do their job

When I was a student, I considered it my job. But I didn’t expect to get paid for it by the school or by my parents. I worked hard because I wanted to learn. Gadfly’s Liam Julian argues that paying students is a lousy idea.

Michelle Rhee, the schools chancellor of Washington, D.C., plans to offer as much as $100 a month to “middle-school pupils who turn in their homework, make it to class, and maintain good grades.” Several foundations are funding “pay-kids-to-do-what-they-should” in various cities.

The problems begin with Rhee’s reasoning, an example of which is this: “When you have a job, your attendance is tracked, whether or not you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing is tracked, and based on that you keep your job and you get a paycheck.” Schools, she insinuated, should be much the same.

This view — and Rhee isn’t the only one to voice it — is illogical because schools are not analogous to employers and pupils are not analogous to workers. A school, unlike an employer, does not reap the services of its students — it provides services to them.

On the other side, Greg Forster makes the case for bribery on PJ Media.

If kids don’t see the value in going to school and doing the work, that may be a result of poor instruction or learning problems: They’re not actually learning anything, so school seems like a waste of time. Perhaps their school experience has taught them that little is expected of them now or later.

If foundations want to fund pay-for-performance schemes, I suggest they put the money into college (or job training) scholarship funds for hard-working students. Connect doing tomorrow’s homework with a brighter future down the road.

About Joanne


  1. And, of course, employees can quit their jobs.

  2. What about parents who don’t want their kids having so much money to get into trouble with?

  3. Here is a link to a Learning Matters — John Merrow — report on this topic:

    Some of the highlights that I remember:

    1. Paying students for test results helped in math but not in the language arts
    2. Students lost motiviation once they were no longer getting paid, and scores dropped lower than before students were paid
    3. Some parents did take the money, not sure if this was for noble or selfish purposes
    4. Analysis done by people at the Hoover Institute

  4. It didn’t work here.

  5. Homeschooling Granny says:

    In his book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, As, Praise, and Other Bribes, Alfie Kohn argues that the incentive rewards or bribes (depending on your point of view) actually devalue and undermine education. He cites a good deal of research, such as one study that found that kids rewarded for volunteer service in an old folks home were less likely to continue once the reward stopped than those for whom the only reward was the work itself.
    I’m not in a position to assess the validity of the research he cites but I find it believable because it matches what I observe in life. I am able to help my granddaughters learn without rewards other than the intrinsic value of what we do and the pleasure of doing it together.

  6. Truthfully, I worked as hard as I did in high school because I knew that I needed to earn a scholarship for college. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I didn’t enjoy learning. Putting money into scholarship funds earmarked for the particular student certainly would have worked for me!

  7. @Rob: According to the press conference on DC Cable last weekend, parents will be able to opt out.

    As part of the program, they’re doing a study of its effectiveness. If the study is well-designed (hopefully we will hear about a lottery for selecting schools to participate), then they should be able to say something pretty solid about the effectiveness in a couple of years. That’s more than you can say for a lot of things that are tried.

  8. Richard Brandshaft says:

    Adults often give themselves short term rewards to reenforce long term goals.

    Long term goal: loose weight.

    Short term reward: Weighing in once a week, and thus being held “responsible” by the instructor. This is surprisingly effective (at least for me) even when the instructor’s opinion makes no difference in my life. Does this undermine my motivation to diet? What does it say about me that mild embarrassment is a better motivator than concern for my health? Whatever, what little I know about various self-help groups suggests I am not alone. Money might work even better, if I could find someone to give me a serious amount of money for every pound I lost.

    A similar case: Policemen entering contests to improve their shooting skill. Is winning a contest (or at least not looking silly) a stronger motivator than the knowledge that one’s skill level might be a matter of life and death? Well, yes.

    Paying students for grades is no screwier than either of the above.

  9. Richard Brandshaft’s post raises some interesting thoughts. I have long been convinced that personal attention can be a very powerful motivator. Brandshaft’s description of a weight loss group supports this idea. Here would be a very interesting experiment: Take one weight loss group and give no material rewards for success, but lots of social interaction. A participant in this group would know that every week his group would know of his success or failure, care about that success or failure, and express that caring in the usual social ways of our culture. A participant of the second group would have no interaction at all with others. He would weigh in in private and receive money, or not, depending on his weight loss. No one would applaud or frown, because no one would know.

    My prediction would be that it would take a lot of money to get the same results as a little personal attention from others. But, of course, that is only my guess.

    So what is the motivation of students in school? I have my ideas, based on my experiences, but no data. Have experiments along this line been done? Apparently some, according to the comments of others. But do we have any detailed descriptions of actual classroom life, with analysis of these descriptions? Perhaps we do, but I didn’t learn about them in ed school. I think if we had good, extensive and well-analyzed descriptions of what actually goes on in classrooms there would be no thought at all to paying kids for schoolwork. It would sound as crazy as paying kids to play at recess.

  10. …Money and attention are very different things.

    I agree with Homeschooling Granny. I am somewhat repulsed by the idea of paying kids for attendance/performance; it would seem to kill motivation in some kids.

    I know my motivation in school was two-fold: first, I just liked learning. I liked being able to progress on to the “next level” of something. The second part of my motivation came from my parents; I knew that the key to having an interesting career and interesting life as an adult was a good education. My mom had been a first-generation college student and so she really knew the value of education.

    More immediately, I didn’t want to disappoint them, which getting bad grades would have done (attention as a motivator: they gave me positive attention when I did well)

    I teach college now. I’ve seen people come in with somewhat of a “mercenary” attitude: “I took part in the discussion today, how many bonus points do I get?” or “I’m here today and a lot of people are skipping, are you going to give me extra credit points?” Makes me want to scream because if ANYONE in an education system should recognize the link between putting in effort and seeing benefits in terms of being more prepared for the workforce, it should be a college student in their major. (And let the Nuffers say: “But if you made your classes INNNNNTERESTING enough, they wouldn’t.” No. It happens to everyone who teaches college now, no matter how “good” they are.)

    I just worry we’re raising a pay-for-play generation where every action has to have a period of reward-negotiation ahead of time.

  11. If foundations want to fund pay-for-performance schemes, I suggest they put the money into college (or job training) scholarship funds for hard-working students. Connect doing tomorrow’s homework with a brighter future down the road.
    I don’t think this would work. . .when rewards become too far off they are ineffective. . .kids who don’t work hard value graduation (or claim to) but it’s too distant in the future to be a motivator.

    Kohn’s book is not reliable. . . .but some of the conclusions he draws are right. I wrote an article that summarizes some of this work which you can see here

  12. I have a real problem with the idea of paying for good grades. Ideally, students should be motivated with a passion for learning, or a a minimum, achievement. As I told my DD (who loves learning), school is all about you – and all for you. Adults who work are expected to be focused on their employers goals, which is why they get paid. I do, however, praise her and encourage her. When I thought she had a bit of test anxiety in one subject (moving from Montessori to a traditional school that placed more emphasis on tests) I would treat her to a mini cupcake of her choice on test days to get her to look forward to tests instead of dreading them. This worked well.

  13. I’ll believe Professors of Education who push Kohn’s thesis when I see College of Education faculty strike for lower pay. If students will not work for the rewards we offer, it’s because the rewards we offer do not appeal to them. One incentive we can offer is freedom. Mandate that schools offer exams for credit, at any time, for a sequence of courses that satisfies graduation requirements. Even if you require that they stay on campus until the end of the school year in which they turn 18, let them spend the free time they earn by testing out running around the track, reading in the library, or hanging in auto shop, if they have passed the required courses for that school year. If you really want to see performance from the children of blue-collar parents, let students apply the taxpayers’ $12,000 per year subsidy toward employment with a private sector employer. $12,000 divided by a 240-day work year is $50 per day. Divide by 8 hours per day and that’s %6.25 per hour. Call it “vocational education”. Lots of kids want OUT, and subsidizing escape options would create strong incentives for kids who currently have little reason to do what schools require.

  14. Hmm, let’s see here… we force students to spend large amounts of time in an institution that they can be criminally prosecuted for not attending. Then we give them whatever work we want, and make sure they’re doing what they’re told, when they’re told. Then we tell them this is their JOB and pay them (or don’t) for it. To be charitable, this sounds like indentured servitude.

    And then we expect them to do it out of love for learning. Well, if learning was really what they were doing, perhaps so. But it is really more like expecting your secretary to do her mundane daily tasks for love of you and the company’s mission. If your secretary were a slave, that is.

  15. Homeschooling Granny says:

    I don’t know whether anyone is still reading this thread but I want to thank Dan Willingham for posting the link to his article. He delineates the uses and risks of rewards as motivation for students and advocates moderate, short-term use. I gather that the science is clear and surmise that inappropriate over-use of rewards derives from desperation.

  16. Claire Boston says:

    Schools are very resistant to the idea of kids testing out of classes, even (or especially, perhaps) the brightest kids. Kids that test out of classes are not sitting in those classes being indoctrinated into the “proper” socialist attitudes, as engineered by the ed schools. And we can’t have that, can we? After all, if we don’t supervise closely, the kids might actually learn to think for themselves (gasp!) and even think things that are not in agreement with our goals (horrors!) No, we can’t have any of that!

    As far as paying kids for attending school goes, I agree it is a lousy idea. You’d have more success if you could explain to kids why learning a specific subject is important, but not in vague, meaningless terms. And if you do that, you have to be prepared to accept that some classes have no real purpose or value (as they are taught) except in the minds of ivory-tower intellectual educators. And we can’t have that, either!