America’s ‘cash for grades’ scandal

In giving students money if they pass their exams, some American schools are polluting the spirit of education.

Alex Standish

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Topics USA

A debate is raging in US education circles about a scheme introduced in schools in Dallas, Washington, Baltimore, Chicago and New York which will financially reward students if they improve their grades.

Financed by private initiatives, these schemes are primarily aimed at ethnic minority and underachieving students. In New York City over 200 schools offer students money for passing Advanced Placement tests and standardised exams. Some Dallas schools have experimented with financial reward schemes since the mid-1990s. Recently, the UK government has funded similar experiments (1). Some of the US schemes also offer money for student attendance and good behaviour. Even elementary students are being bribed with points which can be redeemed for gifts. And teachers and principals are offered cash bonuses, too, if their students’ grades improve.

Many parents and teachers intuitively balk at the idea of paying students to learn. They believe students should be motivated by learning itself, and that offering money can only corrupt the learning process. Yet, so far, these protests have fallen on deaf ears.

‘Fortunately, the scientific method allows us to get to most of those biases and let the data do the talking’, reports Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who designed several of the student incentive schemes (2). Researchers have frantically monitored schools and study groups to generate data showing whether or not the schemes ‘work’. The results seem to suggest that, when they are paid, students feel more motivated to take tests and their pass rates improve; but their motivation levels decline once the cash incentive is removed (3).

However, what is missing from this debate is not data ‘proving’ the case one way or the other, but a clear explanation of why monetary rewards in the classroom degrade education – even if grades improve. In The Demoralisation of Western Culture, Ralph Fevre explained how one type of seemingly rational action applied in the wrong place can result in demoralisation, as areas of life become emptied of their moral content (4). In the case of the student incentive schemes, students are implicitly encouraged to view learning in terms of monetary gain. But as those in the teaching profession know – or should know – education is not about making money; it has its own purpose and rewards. And it is these intrinsic values that are being further undermined by the incentive schemes.

Broadly, the purpose of education is to learn something about the world, to gain access to bodies of knowledge and ideas that one would rarely encounter in one’s daily life. In order for this to happen, schools need to be somewhat separate both from the everyday adult world and from the market: such separation provides the freedom necessary for teachers to teach and students to learn, as together they explore a world of human creativity through literature, languages, arts, history, geography, the sciences, sports, and mathematics.

Through knowledge and ideas, students can learn to appreciate and understand the wonders of the natural and human world, and start to appreciate the nature of humanity itself. Access to this world of knowledge and intellectual skills is essential for young people if they are to begin exploring their own creativity and to find a niche for themselves. In the twenty-first century, there’s a wealth of knowledge available to help young people become future scientists, designers, musicians, writers and academics. Education is a creative pursuit that contributes both to our individual potential and our collective wisdom.

However, once we start paying students to learn, we implicitly communicate the idea that learning, in and of itself, is not of sufficient worth. We might justifiably pay a kid for mundane acts like cleaning a car or raking leaves, because these are laborious tasks that are necessary but which have little intrinsic value. Education, by contrast, is a different matter entirely, because it is anything but a mundane activity. Yes, a sound education requires doing a significant amount of work in order to understand areas of knowledge and to master various skills; however, such work is undertaken in a purposeful manner with the end product of clarity of thought and comprehension.

When the motivation for learning is reduced to earning money, then education becomes a different kind of activity altogether. In essence it is turned into just another chore that has to be done, like cleaning a room or picking up rubbish: necessary activities in our daily lives, of course, but ones which are hardly creative endeavours that might shape our human potential. Education ends up being demoted from a creative to an instrumental act.

Even if the cash improves students’ grades, and they go on to get a college education, still they will have been implicitly taught that education is a shallow activity of little importance to society. When education is seen to lack intrinsic value, and thus must be encouraged through a system of extrinsic rewards, there is no clear reason why students should continue to learn beyond the test. So ‘education’ becomes just another box to tick or competency to be demonstrated.

And yet, those who are understandably appalled by the idea of cash for grades are struggling to win the argument. This is partly because American schools allowed economical rationality through their doors many years ago. Education has become more and more tied up with the market since the 1980s and the publication of the federal report A Nation at Risk, which tied the failings of capitalism to education standards. Since this time American society has tended to measure schools by their contribution to the market, meaning that education has been well and truly commodified (5).

Awarding cash for grades takes this economic rationality to a new level of banality. In trying to give students a feeling of instantaneous gratification for their work, policymakers and teachers are effectively saying that they don’t believe in the long-term transformative potential of education. Hence, it is not students who are at fault here; it is not they who are concocting schemes to motivate themselves to learn. No, it is teachers and policymakers who have lost faith in the value of education and who are seeking alternative means of engaging young people. In doing so, they have ended up communicating to students their own loss of belief in the importance of knowledge and ideas. If they truly believed in the importance of the subjects they teach, they wouldn’t need to bribe students to learn.

The unfortunate irony of paying students to achieve better grades and stay in school is not only that they will end up less well educated, but that they will also be less well prepared for the world of work. A high school diploma or degree from a credible college or university used to be a sign that a person had achieved a certain level of knowledge and understanding through discipline and hard work. Most higher education degrees demanded that students demonstrate higher-order intellectual capacities of analysis, synthesis, comparison and independence of thought. Employers valued these students because such qualities of character and intellect could be utilised for productive purposes. However, when education has been stripped of its rigour and its creative potential, and instead turned into a laborious activity, it demands little of students. It is no wonder that dropout rates at high schools, colleges and universities are so high.

It is a sad reflection of the state of American society that teachers can find no better way to convince students to learn than by offering them a few bucks. Instead of showing students how education can shape and define us, education is being turned into a dirty chore that young people have to get on with on their way to the world of work. So much for expanding the frontiers of future knowledge.

Alex Standish is an assistant professor of geography at Western Connecticut State University and author of Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum: Reviewing the moral case for geography to be published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Alex Standish called for the Humanities to rediscover their humanity. He also argued that under Obama no child is to be left unmonitored. David Perks argued that SATs are not child abuse and urged: Forget this endless exam reform – bring back education. Emily Hill said that, when it comes to school tests, a bit of stress is good for you. Joanna Williams wrote about teachers, targets and theatre trips. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

(1) Money Can’t Buy Better Grades, Liz Lightfoot, Guardian, 4 December 2007

(2) Cash for Test Scores: The Impact of the Texas Advanced Placement Incentive Program, Clement (Kirabo) Jackson, Education Next, Fall 2008

(3) Rewards for Students Under a Microscope, Lisa Guernsey, New York Times, 2 March 2009:

(4) The Demoralization of Western Culture: Social Theory and the Dilemmas of Modern Living, by Ralph Fevre, New York: Continuum. 2000

(5) The McDonaldization of Higher Education, edited by Dennis Hayes and Robin Wynyard, Greenwood Press, 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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