Matt Yglesias floats an interesting idea:

[C]onsider the question of standards and accountability in education. This is definitely a good thing, in a general sense — folks need to be held to standards and there needs to be some accountability. But instead of the byzantine No Child Left Behind standards based on the notion that holding schools accountable will in some way ricochet around and force districts to do a better job of educating their kids, how about something crude — giving money to kids who meet certain benchmarks.

Now we all know that working hard and doing well in school pays off in the long run and that that ought to be incentive enough for people to do it, but in practice they don’t. Human beings, famously, discount the future more than is strictly rational, so people slack off when really they shouldn’t. To get kids to do well, you need to shorten the time horizon by making good performance pay off in the short term.

As I note in his comments, the likely result, especially in the short term, would be a public transfer of money to the children of the wealthy and to Asians and Caucasians. That is, we’re likely to reinforce current tendencies rather than to transform them.

The same baselines would prevail: Those with higher IQs, better-educated parents, a home with lots of books and magazines, stable parents, caring parents, safer neighborhoods, and so forth are naturally more likely to do well in school. The same people, incidentally, are likely to pay more heed to the link between their actions and the consequences arising from them. The only countervailing factor I can see is that, if the financial payoff if fixed–say, $100 per “A,” $80 for “B,” and so on–the reward will seem relatively higher for kids whose parents are in lower economic strata.

Another obvious problem here is that different schools–indeed, different teachers, grade differently. So, what might be a $100 effort in one school is an $80 effort in another. This would almost surely put a great deal of pressure on schools and teachers to engage in grade inflation. This would be especially true in poorer neighborhoods–ironically, the main problem area this program is aimed at–since the kids’ school incentive check would in effect become a major part of their family income. We’ve seen evidence of this happening in states like Georgia (see here and here) where high school grades are linked to state scholarship grants: Giving a poor kid a C+ may mean that he doesn’t go on to college, where a B- gives him a free ride. It’s of course difficult to distinguish between actual increases in performance owing to the new incentive structure and lowering of standards in order to “help” the kids achieve those standards, but the evidence seems to point to the latter being more prevalent.

As this USA Today story notes, there is also a perverse incentive to avoid difficult classes, since getting good grades is more likely in easy ones.

FILED UNDER: Education, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jimmy says:

    OK this won’t work for a million reasons (not to trash your idea, because you already demonstrated several problems with it in the first place in your post, but to add)

    I’d say that there are major holes in this problem:
    1) If a teacher gives out too many good grades, the money dissapears. Fast.
    2) Kids could offer to split the money with their teacher in return for an A.
    3) The kids I know (From my NOVA high school experience) would take that money, turn around, and buy more pot with it. How does the government like this?

    What’s the best solution? I think it would be awards for better scores on the SAT – or some government generated test. That way everyone is on the same playing field and nobody can take easier classes, like half the valedictorians at my high school, who all took 5 sections weight training, one of english, and one of math their senior years so they’d get a 4.0.

  2. BobM says:

    To follow up on Jimmy’s comment — not the SATs, but tests such as AP, International Bacceloriate, or SAT II Achievement tests, all of which target particular areas of content that are important to learn: chemistry, math, writing, etc. What’s in the exams is important. But it is not as important as Jimmy’s main point, that when the criterion is grades, it is in the interest of both the student and the teacher to inflate them. An external examiner circumvents this, makes the system more fair and valid, and encourages the students and teachers to work together on helping the students learn the content.

    Bob M

  3. McGehee says:

    And of course, grade inflation has been an ongoing problem for years, for other but not dissimilar reasons — hence the increasing tendency in reform proposals to emphasize standardized testing.

  4. Teri Lester says:

    I think this idea could work, and target the kids who currently aren’t trying very hard. A kid who is already pulling down high grades isn’t going to have to be motivated. Since it’s been demonstrated that (so far) kids from lower-income families are the ones that tend to not aim for higher grades, you wouldn’t have to pay very much to get them interested.

    But the rewards need to come often. You’d be better off giving small, constant rewards with each grade card than one big smoosh with the SATs. If needed, it could be tied to standardized tests that are given twice a year or every quarter. (We’re blue-skying here anyway, right?)

    FWIW, my kids (very bright) are constantly complaining that we don’t pay them for good grades, and telling us long, heartfelt stories about their friends whose parents give them five, ten, twenty dollars for each A. We don’t do that; our kids mostly get straight As anyway, we couldn’t afford to pay them enough to make it meaningful for them.

    However, Krispy Kreme will give them one free donut for each A on their report card (up to six). It’s comical how each time the report cards come out, they dance around and demand to be driven to Krispy Kreme to claim their prize! Four dollars’ worth of donuts keeps them going all semester. I really think it helps them push over the hump on those occasions when they are tempted to let things slide.

  5. JW says:

    Oh boy–make paying kids for good grades YET ANOTHER means-tested federal entitlment that the vast numbers of middle-class students can’t get in on–right up there with Pell Grants, CHIP, etc., etc., ad nauseum.

    We, as a society, reward people talented at what we value. Athletes, starlets, rappers, and divas make millions of dollars–nuclear physicists, poets, and teachers make bupkes. Creating a society-wide attitude adjustment to reward intellectual achievement is going to take a little more than $80/B can accomplish.

  6. Jimmy says:

    BobM put my words into a solid paragraph very well. But I must comment on International Baccalaureate because I was involved in that program for a sad 4 years of my life at WTWoodson High School (just outside the beltway, actually). IB Sucked. Sucked, with a capitol S. It’s quite possibly the shittiest program I have ever seen- In My Life(tm) (as short as it has been).

  7. Teri Lester says:

    You don’t have to make it means tested. Just make it an amount that is meaningful to poor people and not to middle class. Trust me, that isn’t hard. My 14-year-old gets $3.50 a week allowance. Ten dollars for an A would make him work.

    $60 a kid per semester is not a huge amount, and could certainly be diverted from other stupid things that are currently being paid for. Class-wide pizza parties spring instantly to mind as an excellent thing to get rid of.