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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.