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Cash Incentives: Who Should Offer Them?

I wrote a story about cash incentives for the upcoming issue of Education Week, and it's up now on edweek.org, if you'd like to take a look.

One thing I didn't have room to address in the story itself was assertions by both Andres Alonso, the chief executive officer of Baltimore public schools, and Gregory Fields, the assistant superintendent for high school curriculum for Fulton County, Ga., schools, that students regularly receive monetary incentives from their parents for good grades. Mr. Alonso, in particular, stressed that these programs were making those kinds of rewards available for students whose parents may not be able to provide such incentives. Paying students for high test scores isn't new, he told me, it's just the idea of doing it in an organized way that is causing controversy.

His point is well-taken, although to play the devil's advocate, there are some fundamental differences between parents paying their kids for good grades and schools doling out money to high-achieving students. The most obvious to me is that it is a parent's choice to offer those kinds of rewards to their children. I know some students who were paid for good report cards, and many others who were simply given a pat on the back. I happened to be one of those in the latter category, although I'd venture to say it had less to do with my parents having a moral objection to rewarding me for grades and more to do with the fact that it just wasn't necessary. If it makes a difference, I do remember being rewarded for other things, like not fighting with my sister and keeping my room clean, which makes me think that my parents would be open to trying rewards-for-grades if that had ever been an issue.

But in talking this story over with some of my friends, I had more than one tell me that when they were students, their parents were morally opposed to offering incentives to them for high grades. Their parents believed studying and performing well on tests was something their children were expected to do, not something above and beyond the call of duty for which they should be rewarded. By instituting these kinds of programs into school districts, school officials are taking away the parent's choice to either reward, or not to reward, their children. On the other hand, they're also giving parents who may not have the means to reward their children financially for high academic performance, the option to do so.

It's hard to know how to weigh-in on this complicated issue, and quite honestly, I'm not sure where I stand on it. For now, I'm just eager to see what the research looks like, when it finally starts rolling in.

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