I had to wait for it, but my twelve-year old finally started a real conversation with me about school work. He had written a persuasive essay about whether or not students should get paid for good grades. He asked me to read his draft. Naturally I was quite interested. He argued the con, citing the incentive to cheat. We talked about that. Cheating is bad, he thought, an unintended consequence of paying for grades that detours kids around the purpose of school. Getting paid for grades puts the emphasis on the wrong thing, I thought, namely getting a high grade instead of learning something new. If grades or for that matter test scores are what we care about, then why not utilize any means at our disposal for getting good grades or high test scores? In his notes he held the trump card that effectively combined our two points of view. It was a quote he found from a 2008 editorial by Diane Ravitch on Forbes.com. In it she contrasts the intrinsic motivation of those in India to the extrinsic motivation of Americans, and concludes: "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?"
If you scour the internet (as I have just done) to try and decide the issue you will find ample support that paying kids to get good grades is a bad idea. The arguments boil down to this: young people need to develop the intrinsic motivation to learn. While I agree, I also sense a kind of moral undercurrent. I think people have a gut reaction about paying kids for grades -- that it is wrong because kids ought to be pursuing education for loftier reasons.
But think about this more deeply. What else (and I'm talking to everyone EXCEPT the student) have you got to offer? If you are trying to get a kid to do something he wouldn't do on his own (and what else would be the point of education?), what kind of leverage do you have? Isn't anything you offer a reward of some kind -- and not so different from offering money? Most all schools assign grades. How are grades different from monetary rewards? Many families probably do the math anyway, estimating the added (monetary) value to future careers of good grades now.
Perhaps the most innocuous reward is attention of some kind from the teacher. Need a chart of rewarding phrases? Here's a link to 275 ways to say "good job!" If kids do it so that you'll say "good job" or some variant, how is that different from doing it so you'll give them 10 cents? What do we really mean by "intrinsic motivation?" The idea seems easy: wanting to do something without the need for any external reward, but what does that mean? Don't we ultimately do everything for something? You might like to read for its own sake, but doesn't that just mean that you get a little boost of some pleasure chemical in your brain when you read? Meaning that you still do the activity for a reward -- it just happens to be a chemical reward. Cash rewards come from "outside," but isn't cash ultimately convertible to deeply intrinsic interests -- meaning kids can spend cash on things of value to them?
What do you think?