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Stephen Colbert on Paying Kids for Good Grades


Late night funnyman Stephen Colbert, of all people, examined the issue of paying students for performing well in school this week. On Monday, Colbert hosted economist Roland Fryer, who has developed a program for paying students for achievement in school. Students are taking part in these sorts of programs in Chicago, New York, the District of Columbia, and other areas.

Remarked Colbert: "If it works, look forward to Secretary of Education Alex Trebek."

And later: "What is wrong with the older generation's way of doing things, where they paid kids to do well in school by not opening a can of unholy whoop-ass? That was the currency I was raised with."

Great stuff.


Simply fascinating. I agree and disagree with so many aspects of paying students for good grades. I've often heard of parents rewarding their children's good grades with money, but this is a program funded outside of the home.

My first question has to be "who is funding this?". Students in urban schools are earning $50 for every A they earn every five weeks. That means, if a student is taking seven classes, at seven pay periods (in a 36 week school year), and a student receives straight A's throughout, they could earn $1,750 a school year. That is serious cash to a fifteen year old.

We have obviously yet to find the answer to our nation's problems in urban schools. Cash reward is definitely motivation for anyone, it is why we work. But, I do not see this method of motivation working at on a very large scale. We thirst for the funding of public education as it is, and "student salary" is certainly not another expense that we would be able to find room for in our state budgets.

Let's say the program works. These students become accustomed to being paid for their hard work. The goal of the program is to lead children to successful careers, and most successful ccareers require a college degree. In college, you pay heavily for the opportunity to earn grades by taking classes. What happens after these students succeed and make it to college. Their extrinsic reward will no longer exist, so what is their motivation? On the other hand, perhaps somewhere along the way of getting paid for grades, they learn to appreciate the value of an education, and that compensation is the difference in their life.

There are so many positives and negatives entailed with such a radical program to increase student performance in urban schools. Cash is a proven motivator and there is no doubt in my mind that some students will earn much better grades. College students are practicing essentially the same concept. If it wasn't for getting a better job with better pay, most colleges would become extinct. I am excited to see the results of this program in the coming years.

I thought the model Professor Fryer described was interesting -- apparently, the kids get half their money at graduation, so there is both an immediate reward and a long-term incentive to stay in school.

I personally think this is worth trying. Lots of families already do this, including many I know personally, and the kids involved remain enthusiastic learners. Moreover, you can't take away the knowledge they acquire even if their motivation to acquire that knowledge was rooted in a desire for cash rather than a desire for learning. Hopefully, some kids will discover a real passion for some aspect of school. Others may simply discover their own potential to succeed in school when they try. But the idea that extrinsic motivation will disappear later in life is silly. We get paid to work and many people work to make a living (rather than living for their jobs). Heck, I know people who were top-flight students and attended the very best schools and even graduate schools. Their motivation was a high standard of living, and once they got the degree to get the job that would bring them that standard of living, they never read another book. As a person who really loves learning (and reading), I find that to be a small life, but they're happy and they're self-sufficient, so what I think doesn't matter very much.

In response to the poster above, I believe all these programs are privately funded. But if they work well, I don't see why they wouldn't be worth funding publicly. We already spend $15-20K per pupil in our urban districts and the results for all that spending are DISMAL. So $1,000-1,500 per pupil for something that works seems like a good investment -- the question is, do they work? And given where things stand today, it seems worth trying to find that out.

Quoted from a previous comment: "Moreover, you can't take away the knowledge they acquire even if their motivation to acquire that knowledge was rooted in a desire for cash rather than a desire for learning..."

Getting *good grades* doesn't necessarily mean acquiring knowledge (particularly knowledge that is retained...) A good percentage of children work hard to 'learn' the material before a test, then promptly forget the material to make room for the next load of material. And while setting a goal and working hard toward that goal are important traits in themselves, all the emphasis on extrinsics (test scores, grades, rewards) encourages mediocrity more and more from the students, the teachers, the system. ("The material must not be interesting in itself if they are paying me to absorb it, and so I don't have to engage any more than necessary..." "I don't have to strive to engage the students--they get paid to learn..." "It doesn't matter if these tests are meaningless and the students forget the material right away anyway because the *scores* are really good.") Of course, there are always exceptions, but pressure is in that direction. I think we should be creating excellence instead of buying our way around it.

Sounds expensive. Will that money be enough of an incentive for students who are not engaged in school? I think it's a better investment to change curriculum so that the primary incentive of getting through school is the day-to-day learning that goes on.

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