UNN Guest Post: Why Paying Kids to Perform Well in School is a Dumb Idea

Here’s another guest post in which I can rest, kick my feet back relax and not rack my brain for a few days and focus on frigging CHURCH HISTORY **pulling hair out just thinking about it** on my Saturday mornings.  So here’s Uppity Friend and her latest installment.

So I guess you know already know how I feel about it, huh?


The idea is this: in urban school districts across the country (ones in New York, DC and Chicago, among others), public school kids are being paid for getting good grades and scoring highly on standardized tests.  Private investors are giving kids anywhere from $25 to upwards of thousands of dollars (or even cars) for their academic performance. Now I’m well aware that there is, to quote Robert M. Franklin, “a crisis in the village” in regards to the education our kids receive, and a host of other issues.  But I just don’t think that paying kids for academic performance is a way to relieve the crisis.

“But it’s an incentive! Parents pay their kids to get good grades all the time,” you say, and you’d be right.  Middle class families often offer their kids $50, or whatever, per “A” to ensure that little Jane and John go that extra mile and bring home a glowing report card.  It’s been going on since, well, there were report cards, I guess. 


But middle class kids aren’t the target demographic of this incentive program.  It’s the “marginal” kids, meaning black and Latino kids in the inner city who are underperforming and/or not attending school.  We’re not asking Jane and John from Libertyville to make those good “Bs” excellent “As” in exchange for a little extra cash. No, we’re asking Jane and John from Englewood [Editor’s note: South Side neighborhood in Chicago] to turn those funky “Fs” into mediocre “Cs”, that lousy 3 stanine into an above average 6, and that atrocious attendance record into something that looks acceptable for a few duckets. 


I don’t think you can treat two fundamentally different diseases with the same medicine.  You may be able to ask kids who already value education to value it more, but you can’t ask kids who don’t believe in a system to believe in it for few hundred dollars now and a couple thousand for college, especially if they’re not sure they’re going to college anyway.


What is the goal of these programs? If it’s to make kids attend school, then you may get results for a while.  Kids who were truant may decide that it’s worth their time to show up more often if they’re going to get a paycheck.  But what happens when they realize there’s a bigger paycheck to be earned elsewhere? I know a few jobs that young people in the inner city can get to earn way more than $250.  Don’t you?


And if the goal is to foster an interest in education, well, I still think the leaders of this program are going about this in the wrong way.  I’d argue that the difference between middle class kids who earn money for their grades and low income kids who do the same is that middle class children are taught to value education from a young age in primary ways that make the cash/gift incentives they receive secondary. 


What I mean is, middle class kids know that you should go to school because there’s something that you gain from going there that translates into a better life down the road.  If you grew up in a setting that included educated parents, educated family members and educated community members who, because of their education, had carved out good lives for themselves, you’d know that the value of education is what it helps you achieve in the long term.  You would see that education can sometimes be its own reward, and that the extra $50 you get for good grades is icing on the cake.  But if you grow up in a place where no one is educated, and you are poor, and you don’t have access to a good education, and education doesn’t seem like a solution to any of your problems, what use do you have for school?  Those kids are the ones that this program is aimed at.  And if it succeeds, it will do so because kids have bought into the “get money” culture that we’ve glorified for way too long. 


Drug dealers “get money”, ballers “get money” and they do it quickly.  So why not go to school and “get money”? I’ll tell you why: BECAUSE NOT EVERYTHING YOU DO SHOULD BE FOR MONEY!  Sometimes, doing something that’s beneficial to your mind and sprit is its own reward. And if we teach kids that they must be instantly gratified for everything, even attending school and placing high regard on their education, then we’re making them believe that the only things worth doing are one that we “get money” for.  That’s what they teach on BET.  And I don’t think kids’ worldviews should be informed by BET.  But that’s another blog…


And, dare I say, what if we’re trying to fix the wrong problem? Paying kids to do well in school assumes that they have the ability to do well; they’re just not because they don’t feel like it.  They’re lazy, and they need motivation.   Maybe.  But what if (and this is an important “if”) they’re not doing well because (GASP!) they don’t have adequate curriculum in the schools? What if it’s because there aren’t enough well-trained teachers?! What if it’s because the building is falling down?! What if it’s because there aren’t enough resources to address students with learning or behavioral disorders?!  What if it’s because the kids go home to houses where classroom learning isn’t reinforced?  What if the kids aren’t alright because were not doing all we can to make their educational system alright? Just a thought.


The part of this program that gives the kids money for college, I’m down with that. Word bond. The cost of college is atrocious, and I’m all for giving kids access to higher education who may not have it because of the economic status of their families.  That’s nice. I’d donate to that cause. But you know who I really want to give cash incentives to? Parents.  That’s right, you heard me, mama and daddy.  Pay them for going to open house. Pay them for helping out at the school.  Pay them for picking up the kids’ report card.  Pay them for having the good sense to agree to diagnostic testing that shows their kids have a learning disability, then pay them for helping that kid with a disability study and do the best they damn well can in school.  Maybe parents need an incentive.  I’ve seen a few lazy parents, and trust, they aren’t motivated to “parent for the sheer joy of parenting”.  Hell, some of them aren’t motivated to do anything.  At all.  So if money talks, and people listen, tell your cash to talk to these parents and maybe they can work out a deal.  Cuz, I have a feeling that for every “lazy” kid out there who isn’t doing well in school and needs to be given an “incentive”, there’s a family that’s not doing all they can to encourage the child to do their best

I guess ’nuff said.

Personally, I do disagree with Uppity Friend if paying money means that John and Jane, or should I drive the point home more and say Jaekwon and Roumeshia, will do better because they have money in their pocket, then be my guest. I personally don’t believe that if it suceeds it will be because “they have bought into the ‘get money’ culture” nor do I think that these few schools will be contributing that much more to the idea of instant gratification.  There are plenty other sources in this society to feed into that ideology.  And at the end of the day, given everything else is a constant (teachers teaching well, books and other resources etc.) the kids will be educated.

Worse thing is that this will not work and the donors’ money will cease and we go back to the clearly broken-ass system that’s in place.  Clearly there’s a crisis in the village and I see nothing wrong with trying some radical plans.

Well, you see where both of us stand on this issue.  I’d love to hear from you and I’m sure Uppity Friend would love to read your comments as well.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL




6 thoughts on “UNN Guest Post: Why Paying Kids to Perform Well in School is a Dumb Idea

  1. As a parent and teacher, I’m on the fence about this one. I certainly don’t agree that it is a ‘dumb idea,’ though. We have long since strayed from the idea of learning for the sake of learning. I look at it as similar to the Dubois/Washington debate; you know: Dubois believed that higher education was supposed to improve the spirit of the person, Washington believed education should prepare you to take care of yourself. This monetary idea goes along with Washington. It also supports what most people, including teachers like myself, often tell students is a reason to succeed in school: getting a job. And not just any job, but a ‘good’ job, whatever that means. When we go to college, how many of us take courses that we don’t need for graduation simply because they are something that seem interesting to us? How many of chose a major that truly sparked our interest, but would not get us a job when we graduated? The bottom line is that we view education as a way to get money.

    Because my son just started school, my emphasis for him is on “learning new things that will help him in life.” With my middle school students, my emphasis is on having more options in life. But the end result is still the same–being able to earn money to obtain the things we want and need in life.

    If paying a for grades keeps that kid who would have done just enough to get by encourages him to get an A or B, it may be worth it. If paying a child to come to school instead of hanging out with their friends or just staying in bed, why not give it a try? The bottom line though is that in order for children to excel in school the have to see something in it for themselves. And lets face it, reading The Old Man and the Sea or solving physics problems isn’t going to interest the average 16 year old.

  2. Speaking truth to power wins out. It seems that PAYING KIDS TO PERFORM is a new form of creating an out for public policy to substitute $$$ reward for correcting years of ‘benign neglect’. This approach is neither ’40 acres and a mule’ parity nor is it particularly character building.

    Uppity Friend, you are so on point about rewarding the parents for their efforts in nurturing their children and themselves towards self-validation. To do well because it is the right thing to do works over the long haul.

    Delayed gratification does not mean ‘not ever’ it means ‘not now’. Opportunity costs include preparation for choices when one actually has to choose. Operating from a default position (someone else decides) is what tends to happen when poor choices happen to children early on.

    I am sure that there are wonderful teachers and many parents who cope under horrible school and home situations–but paying children to do what children should do because they are valued as human beings is not the way to encourage excellence.

    What happens to the children who routinely tend to get the A’s and B’s? Do the coffers of available $$$ become depleted by the already motivated? Will this end up where the most able reap double rewards? Case in point—there was a time when merit-based scholarships were specifically targeted to students who met college GPA requirements but did not have the $$$$ to pay the way. Those students (back in the day) were rewarded for their hard work and afforded the opportunity to complete college.

    Somehow, ‘merit-based’ scholarship morphed into ‘rewarding’ the well-born even though parents could afford to pay for the higher learning. Scholarships go to the highest scoring (because of the advantage of motivated parents) without regard to the family’s ability to pay.

    Will we begin to discount urban and rural children’s desire to learn altogether by paying them to get ‘good grades’?

    Lord help us…

  3. @Mrs.Jones

    School is somewhat a means to an end nowadays. Exactly for the reason that you said, just so you can get a decent job. Fact of the matter is, if you don’t go to school and at this point minimally get a college degree, you will be locked out of this American Dream that is advertised on TEE-VEE day in and day out.

    If paying kids money can give them a better shot, then by all means. And then on top of that, if they get an A, they get more money, and prayerfully that means that they’ve mastered what they were learning which at the end of the day is the goal of the education system.


    Who gets to determine what brand of “speaking truth to power” gets asserted.

  4. I totally agree with Uppity. The best private and public schools teach kids in a way that builds on their curiosity and the desire to learn that every one is born with. They have great teachers whose excitement over the subject is contagious, who build solid relationships with the kids, who show them how relevant learning is to life in general and their lives in particular. But when it comes to poor kids, we give them lousy schools with underpaid and under -trained teachers — and now, we want to pay them to learn, which produces poor quality learning. It’s an apartheid-like system if you ask me.
    Here’s an article I coauthored in the LA Times that gives a taste of the mountains of research which have found that paying people to learn doesn’t work :


    Furthermore, there are charter schools and other alternative school projects that give disadvantaged kids the same kind of attention and great teaching that wealthier kids get in prep schools. That’s what philanthropists ought to be funding. When kids have intrinsic motivation to learn, the research shows, their learning is deeper, more complex and they remember it longer. When you pay people to learn it produces a kind of basic, superficial learning.
    And finally this suburban myth that middle class parents pay their kids for grades: let’s bury it. It’s not true. Maybe a few parents do it but it’s by no means a habit, trend, or tradition. This is s just a myth being perpetrated to cover over the fact that these new programs are treating disadvantaged kids in a different way than we’re treating wealthier kids.

    Kathy Seal
    http://www.kathyseal.net & http://www.pressuredparents.com
    BLOGGING at http://pressuredparents.wordpress.com/

  5. Dear Uppity Negro,

    I am in 100% agreement with Mrs. Jones, but I see two issues at hand.

    First, the teaching instruction needs to be different to acheive better results. Unfortunately, the public school system has been held in bondage by red tape and old perspectives, which means, getting “real” change in a “real” time frame is a vision, not a reality. I think with the new administration there will be an infusion of new ideas, but it will still take a long time to do away with old techniques/topics/ mindsets that our kids see as meaningless and a waste of time.

    The second is what this idea addresses: creating the desire in kids to want to perform well in school. In Utopia, kids would love to learn for the sake of learning. However, we live in America. Our culture revolves around the premise of “work hard, and you will be rewarded for it.” The problem is that we are trying to reward our kids of today with what our grandparents were given, and for decades now, our kids have been telling us ‘ NO THANKS!’. Technology has brought opportunity to the fingertips of anyone who wants to seize it. As a result, there are people who make “good money” who bombed in high school and never set foot into college. Even the Today show highlighed two teenagers who made over a million dollars via internet based businesses.

    Does this mean that I think college or education is a waste? No, certainly not. But I don’t think that the value in it is the same as it was back in our day. In the old days, going to college was the only real option to acheive financial success. That’s just not true anymore.

    I think we should be teaching our kids that generating income to address living requirements and following our passions are two totally different things, and can be acheived in two totally different paths. Until the public school system can change to reflect a stimulating and relevant environment of learning, we should be trying out different options, in different combinations to get better results. Maybe if we started teaching financial responsibilty (to include generating income) to our kids, they will develope a sense of willing to work for what THEY want, whatever that may be.

    Just a thought.

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