« When "Equality" Is Used to Push Through Orwellian Measures | Main | Responding to Readers on 'High Level' Thinking and More »

Cash for Scores


Dear Deborah,

In the past, say, a century or so ago, school reformers used "democracy" as the magic word. Whatever they were doing, whether it was imposing vocational tracking in the new junior high schools or using IQ tests to sort students for their future occupations, the reformers said that it was all to promote "democracy." Each child would learn where he or she fit best into the social order and could then make their appropriate contribution, whether as professionals (the tiny few) or housewives or clerical workers or manual workers, and so on.

Now, as you point out, the buzz word of the day is "equality." So New York City has a "chief equality officer," an economist who has designed a plan to pay poor kids to raise their test scores. This, he presumes, will lead to equality. On Monday, USA Today had a big story about how several districts across the nation are now paying kids to raise their scores or paying them to take AP classes or paying them to get a passing grade in an AP course. I am not an economist, so perhaps I am just not smart enough to understand the nuances of this plan, but I wonder: Suppose the policymakers decide that this experiment works. How much will it cost to pay every low-performing student to raise their test scores? How much will it cost to pay every student who agrees to take an AP course? Right now, these programs are being funded by private philanthropies and businesses. Has anyone figured out what it would cost to turn these programs into public policy?

I have deep objections to this mantra of cash-for-scores. I think it is wrong to pay kids cash-for-scores. I do believe in incentives, just not these incentives. I believe that grades are an appropriate incentive; so is the expectation that good work in school will prepare one to enter higher education. Those are education appropriate incentives. They require the student to learn the value of deferring instant gratification. Paying them cash to raise their scores does not do that.

And as psychologist Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore wrote in The New York Times several months back, 'if we have to pay people to do the right thing, no one will do the right thing unless they are paid to do it.' Down the drain will be any idea of intrinsic motivation, as well as any sense of civic duty.

Then there is the question of exactly what these tests mean and why they matter so much. Imagine that the incentivists carry the day. We will have created an educational system that strives mightily (and maybe even successfully) to teach kids to check off the right box when given a choice of four. Pray tell, in what line of work will that skill be valuable in the future? I don't know.



Hmmm. I pay my son for doing his homework, turning it in, and showing me proof. Rather than pay for his chores, I pay for homework. You see, I already faded the reinforcer (money) for chores. Now it is a fact of life with occasional positive remarks - "hey, thanks for vacuuming upstairs."

I figure if money is a strong reinforcer - then use it! But then fade it.

The problem with using it across all students might be that they don't value money. They get it from mom and dad or elsewhere. In addition, no one is getting more bang for the "dollar" by giving some money and putting the rest in a savings account. By giving money, you also have the responsibility to show how to properly use it - not by creating a whole bunch of materialist credit card users.

I'm not even going to get into the tax implications of doing this school or district wide ..

Why don't we spend the money being wasted on test score incentives to build curricula and programs that are of such obvious inherent value that all students will want to learn rather than having to be bribed to learn.


It would be a tragedy if this movement to pay students for grades takes wider hold. This type of incentive undermines many fundamental values of education that we should be conveying in our schools (self-reliance, delayed gratification and ownership of one’s own future/learning, etc…).

But the motivation of the incentivists stems from a very real discomfort with our educational system and the lack of a quality education for our children, in particular our disadvantaged children. Certainly, the comparisons between our school system and others around the world support their world view. That is: our schools are not teaching very much and we need to try “something” to enable our children to learn. How can we fault them for that very caring rationale?

Because our school systems lack any rational, systematic way of developing quality curricula and teaching methods and evaluating those improvements, our children (and teachers and schools) are constantly being subjected to the educational reform whim of the moment. Perhaps yesterday was “testing and accountability” and today is “payment for grades.” Who knows what tomorrow will be but it most likely will only serve to undermine our schools more.

Erin Johnson.

I work in a school that uses the HOPE program to pay 4th graders for their test scores. The way in which the program is organized is so absurd that it more or less assures that there will be no educational benefit. In fact, I'm convinced that it is actually damaging to the group of students it is trying to encourage.

The students take a computerized test about every other month. Because these tests are computerized, they involve a completely different set of test-taking strategies than the actual state test.

During the weeks between each computerized tests, the students take several additional practice tests. The multitudes of practice tests these students take ensure that the incentive element of the program is ineffective. Little to no warning is ever given ahead of time to inform the students that the tests are approaching. The tests have become just another part of the school day.

Plus, I don't know of any students who score low on the test on purpose. So the amount of money being waved in their faces has little impact. When the students get their result and find out how much money they earned, it becomes a competition among the students. Those who aced the test brag about getting twenty-plus dollars. Those who miss every question get five dollars. These students are not going to just try harder next time. Instead, they are going to be reminded of their failures, and ultimately, turned off from learning.

Even if the money did inspire a child or two, I'm guessing such inspirations are short-lived. It will be another six weeks until their next test, and in the meantime they will constantly be reminded of how much they don't know, since their curriculum consists of multiple-choice test preparation that only allows for one absolute answer.

Perhaps the older students involved in the program find it to be enough of an award to inspire the students to learn. But I'm guessing that the older the student, the less impressed that student is going to be with $15 once every two months.

It is a nice way to reward those who succeed, but I don't know how that's going to benefit those who are already behind. The students getting just a few dollars for each test are most likely several grade levels behind. They didn't get that way because they weren’t motivated enough. The system has failed them, and somehow, the brilliant idea to narrow the gap that exists is to make them feel even more defeated.

You can't motivate students -- especially those already behind -- by making them feel inadequate. This mentality seems to make it even worse. Can we really act surprised when these students drop out?

[We will have created an educational system that strives mightily (and maybe even successfully) to teach kids to check off the right box when given a choice of four. Pray tell, in what line of work will that skill be valuable in the future? I don't know.]

Whatever one thinks of this type of incentive program, it doesn't have to be done with checking off boxes. Students could actually be asked to show their work.

It's nice to talk about intrinsic value, grades being an incentive, and the rewards of higher education. The unfortunate reality is that in the inner city such lofty incentives don't make much of an impression. So the stark choice is between continuing academic failure and base bribery.

Dear Diane and Deborah,

Were you ever poor while growing up? I doubt it, given what you've written about the "cash for scores" issue.

I can easily think of three reasons why "cash for scores" could be a good idea:

1) Economical
Many teenagers work part-time, and it certainly can interfere with the time and concentration they can then dedicate to studying. Getting cash for scores could get them out of this problem.

2) Cultural
Some families do not value education, at least not for some of their children. The best Calculus student in my HS was a girl who worked evenings in her family's restaurant. Right after graduation she started working fulltime. There's no foolproof way to prevent such educational tragedies, but I bet that if kids like her made some decent dough in HS from test scores, their chances to continue with education would improve.

3) Psychological
There's an immense amount of hypocrisy in education, especially in relation to poor kids, and the kids -- at least the bright ones -- know it. They notice how often their teachers are burned out or simply do not know the subject matter they are supposed to teach. They notice when their school spends money here and there but just can't afford to offer AP classes. They notice when funding the football team is much more important that funding science or art (except for the marching band, of course). They eventually notice that the job of counselors, armed with their degrees in psychology, is to convince students that "it is in your best interest" that which is actually in the best interest of the school administration. And so on. Under such conditions the road to good education (as well as its rewards) can seem quite foggy and uncertain. So when someone actually puts up -- money talks -- rather than just talks more BS, it can make a real difference and convince the kids that maybe at least some of the public truly does care about how well they learn.


- Jan

Good Evening Girls,
Reading your conversations is a wonderful experience and you seem to be such good friends amongst the heap. Jan Amos, presents a compelling viewpoint and being a resident in an area of at-risk-children, she has my vote on what is going to bring a fair student to a better student and finally to the best student she/he could be. The incident of the girl( the calculus student), staying and helping the family is a very strong issue with poverty related at-risk-children they want the immediate pay check not the PhD.
At the present time, we are preparing a grant proposal for the "Cash4Grades" concept and have students eager to sign on for the program. Geoffrey Canada, of the Harlem Children's Zone, in your city, but in Harlem, he has an estimated award budget of four million dollars, to promote increasing grades and to get students into a college mode.
Jan, makes perfect sense, in her case she shows a transparency to the problem with parts of our education attitudes. There are people who don't have a clue about what is going on around them about their children's education and will pull them into the family to work, get pregnant and have another baby before she can have her twentieth birthday. Just creating more responsibilities on an already over burdened family. If the children can earn extra money and learn better study habits, while preparing for college the better and the sooner the family can face the issues and tensions of society. But, again, let me proclaim my conservative nature, very conservative nature.

Diane & Deborah,
There was an incident last night where, while, in conversation with one of my students' older brother, the question came up about "honour" and what it entailed, as far as everyday occurrences. It was very startling to learn that this young man, early twenties, stated that he had a "right to lie." This is coming from a product of our local school systems, of course, he is in a high-density, low income neighborhood known for gang related problems, but still that doesn't speak, at all well, for the community. This is what we are trying to fight the existing leadership is so lacking integrity and character, because of the drop-out rate. My position here, is a volunteer tutor children because their parents can't from a language barrier, also scholastic abilities and it's all free, to the families. So, you can see there is a hope in this approach and if it doesn't work you'll hear from me as one of the first to say so. Just pray.

The children have achieved several local awards and a national award for doing what they are supposed to do.......their homework. But, still we have a drop-out rate that is unacceptable to our standards in the country, state, county, village.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Most Viewed on Education Week



Recent Comments