I distinctly remember sitting in my first undergraduate educational psychology class and the professor putting forth the question, “should parents provide financial incentives for earning good grades” to spark interest. For the remaining 45 minutes of the lecture, the professor described how paying children for grades was a bad idea because it resulted in children losing “their love of learning” because they will only be extrinsically motivated for money. While I think this stance may be a little strong, I could understand where my professor (and the educational literature) was coming from.
A recent article reviewed in Time magazine, however, has made me reconsider my beliefs on this topic. A Harvard economist, Roland Fryer Jr., recently conducted research in which he paid students for academic success (defined in a variety of different ways) to those who were not paid. The schools were in cities across the nation and each school was randomly assigned to condition (i.e. the type of pay or control condition). The results of the study found that in some circumstances, students who were paid demonstrated better academic gains than those who were not paid. Students who showed the greatest gains were those who were paid for behaviors ( e.g. reading books, attendance, appropriate behavior, etc) that they perceived as being within their control. Students, however, who were paid for less concrete behaviors (i.e. higher performance on standardized tests) did not perform any better (or worse) than those in the control condition. All in all, it does not appear that paying students for academic success squelches their desire to learn.