For the Narcissist Lover in You…

How Paying Students for Good Grades is the Best Worst Idea Ever

So I just read a really interesting article about how kids are actually willing to get better grades if they are paid for them.  A study by Harvard University showed that when schools paid kids for good grades, test scores noticeably improved.

The idea is that kids are not great at long-term goals (which proves I am perpetually nine years old) and thus are not academically motivated by the thought of a decent job and a maybe a fishing boat twenty years from now.  Promise them twenty bucks of cold, hard cash if they bring their C to an A, however, and suddenly they’ve caught algebra fever.


Which can turn into the Calculus Shakes if you don’t catch it early.

All right, sounds pretty good.  So rather than paying welfare to a bunch of schlubs on the back end, we invest at the beginning to help craft a productive utopia of happy capitalists.

And yet there’s something about this premise that needles at me.  I played it out as a sort of mental experiment and this is what I got.  Tell me where I’m wrong:

Year one:

Schools across the country implement a pay-for-grades program, rewarding those who achieve a B average with cold hard moolah.  Amazingly, it works.  Test scores rise by, oh, let’s say a modest twenty percent.  Not ground-breaking, but statistically significant.

Year two:

More kids make it into college because of their improved test scores, thanks in no small part to the grade-money they earned and subsequently spent on top forty ring tones and Family Guy episodes on iTunes.

ImageIf only they taught a class in Stewie-economics, I could kill two birds with one stone.

Year three:

MSNBC does a primetime special on the kids at an inner city school whose grades aren’t high enough to earn any academic dough.  Cameras follow them around, showing how hard it is for them to study in their broken homes and interviewing them about how much they really, really need that extra cash.  Subsequent shots show their more fortunate classmates studying in comfortably affluent homes, probably eating caviar off of Townhouse crackers (because Ritz are for people who shop at Walmart).

ImageNabisco named them “Ritz”. They’re just mocking us now, aren’t they?

Year four:

A growing movement of students’ rights activists complain that it isn’t fair that grade money only goes to the achievers.  They insist that the system gives an unfair boost to the fortunate while punishing those who are already disadvantaged by their environment.  Eventually these activists win the public debate.  The system is altered so that money is now granted merely for attending class, regardless of resulting grades.

Year five:

A teacher’s strike occurs, closing schools for three weeks while unions battle states about collective bargaining rights and free tater tots in teachers’ lounges.  Several news stories cover the plight of students who, because of school closings, have temporarily lost the attendance money they have come to rely on.  An outcry leads to the institution of attendance payments regardless of whether or not class is actually in session.

ImageTruly, they are our unsung heroes.

Year six:

Democrat politicians loudly lament the stinginess of Republicans who refuse to pay students their much-needed attendance money just because school is out for summer break.  A bill is passed requiring states to pay interim attendance payments to students year round.

Year seven:

Attendance payments are increased due to economic inflation.  Students’ rights activists picket school offices claiming loudly that the increase is not sufficient.  For the first time in seven years, test scores drop by a small percentage.

Year eight:

The advent of intentional failure becomes a known phenomenon.  Students in economically depressed areas are willingly failing classes in order to be held back, thus increasing their time in school and their overall attendance income.  Fox news runs a story on this and is roundly condemned as racist, even though four of the six kids shown in the story are white.

ImageStephen Colbert is officially named Ambassador of Redundancy

Year nine:

The original program’s title is changed from “the Monetary Grade Incentivization Initiative” to the “Children Are Our Future Won’t Somebody Think of the Children” act.  Despite being egregiously over budget, pay-outs to students are increased by twenty-five percent, including payments to parents as part of the “Homework Assistance Credit”.  Somehow, there are six hundred times more students receiving benefits than there were in year one.


“This isn’t even a classroom! It’s the teacher’s lounge! Go home already!”

Year ten:

Test grades are now officially lower than they were before the program began.  Congress passes a law legally allowing anyone under thirty to call themselves a student and receive benefits as such.  The “Students of Life” PAC insists that senior citizens are doubly owed academic remuneration, both as lifetime learners and as one-time students who did not receive a single red cent for their good grades and/or attendance.

Those who oppose the program as a bloated entitlement and a budgetary apocalypse are branded child-haters and anti-education.  Academic remuneration officially replaces social security as the dreaded “third rail” of politics, ensuring nothing is ever done to rein in, alter, or fix the program in any way.

And that is how, in a mere ten years, a relatively cheap program for encouraging good study habits would devolve into a bloated entitlement program, devastate academic achievement, and send all of western civilization into a doom spiral of Greece-style economic collapse.

ImageLet’s not even talk about the zombie economists.

Am I wrong?  Seriously, has there so far been any attempt to externally manipulate society for the betterment of all that did not end in crushing bureaucracy, flaming class warfare, and a hurricane of unintended consequences?  Central planning is simply one of those idyllic fantasies that can never, ever work in a society full of humans, humans being so easily corrupted by even the most benign power and misplaced good intentions.

And that’s a shame.  Because I really could have used that Homework Assistance credit.


10 responses

  1. Hester

    I think you got it just about right…

    September 13, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    • Gracias. Methinks this idea– as with most good ideas– would work marvelously well on an individual basis. I’d consider it with my own kids. But like most well-intentioned programs that would work great on an individual basis, once it becomes a government entity, it becomes a magnet for corruption, controversy and out-of-control, woefully ineffective spending.

      I should have introduced it as an analogy for… well… pretty much every government social program in existence.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:06 am

  2. Bryan

    Couldn’t agree more…incentive to do should be found from within.

    September 14, 2012 at 5:21 am

  3. LMAO. That is TOO funny–but unfortunately, too true as well. I don’t suppose it would work just to tell the kids, if they bring home anything lower than a B, they’re grounded for life.

    September 14, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    • Worked for my parents, Zixi. That’s why I still live in their basement. (I’m grounded for several lifetimes…)

      September 15, 2012 at 4:53 am

  4. Jon

    HAHA, you know I had never thought to picture this like that. However it should be noted that in the schools where this is being done (at least last time I checked), they are part of the charter schools… Which the government isnt even willing to accept that charter schools are a good thing since you constantly hear how they are destroying the teacher’s unions and breaking the system… oh and cheating, yes cheating, since they go and make these schools in well off areas where kids are already performing well. (This of course is contrary to reality, in which many are started in the worst school districts in the country and in a matter of 5 years turn everyone’s grades around from failing to way above the national average).

    Anyway the point was, that it will be a number of years likely before your 10 year plan plays out, because first we have to go through the destruction of the teachers union… or converting charter schools back into the system… whichever comes first.

    September 15, 2012 at 9:50 pm

  5. Jon

    AAANNND apparently I should actually read source material before shooting off my mouth… haha. In the referenced case yes, this seems to be normal schools. Where I heard about it, it was not part of this study. It was being done in a charter school…

    September 15, 2012 at 10:00 pm

  6. Benjamin McLean

    This post is soincredibly full of ABSOLUTE WIN!!!

    October 7, 2012 at 6:02 pm

  7. Shawna

    I’d like to say you’re being overly pessimistic, but I’ve learned not to underestimate the stupidity of large groups of people or the government in general.

    That said, I got paid for good grades–by my parents. I’d say it worked. You really don’t care about long-term things like good jobs as much when you’re a kid as you do about the idea of getting enough cash from a good report card to buy some new toy you want. But it should be something the *parents* do, not the school system.

    December 17, 2012 at 8:24 am

  8. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate your efforts and I will
    be waiting for your next write ups thank you once again.

    July 17, 2013 at 8:24 pm

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