"Educators" Don’t Learn that Pay for Grades is Harmful


Pay for Grades? – Springfield, IL – The State Journal-Register

Flying in and out of Chicago, I've been reading over the past few months about the Chicago Public Schools paying high school freshman and sophomores for their grades:

“…some Chicago public schools began paying freshmen and sophomores $50 per A, $35 per B and $20 per C.”

I first heard about this program while waiting in line for a restaurant (the Bongo Room has the best brunch ever, by the way). I overheard a woman say “CPS is starting to pay students for grades… that's great!!!!”

No, it's dumb.

Dr. Deming wrote so effectively about how extrinsic rewards often do nothing but drain people of their natural intrinsic rewards. We see this in the workplace with annual performance review and incentive bonus systems and the dysfunctions that often come with them. Why would we start doing this to students so early in life? Dr. Deming would have not only said “Don't pay for grades” — he argued for the abolition of grades altogether! Even grades were an extrinsic motivation that drained students of their natural intrinsic motivation for learning.

In the linked article, there are “Pro” and “Con” arguments from two different high school students.

The “Pro” student argues:

“I was a little surprised when I read the program was Harvard-designed. Surely it's common sense. Money is a huge incentive — it's what motivates most jobs and careers.”

Hmmmm…. Harvard-designed. You can draw whatever conclusions about Harvard's ability to know what works in the real world.

Yes, we need money for housing, shelter, and other things, but most high achievers are driven by a desire for accomplishment or other drivers beyond money. I guess the Harvard folks aren't familiar with Maslow's “Hierarchy of Needs?” Beyond a certain basic sustenance level, money isn't the motivator that the “Pro” student makes it out to be.

“Money gives students a short-term goal, instant gratification and a tangible reason for doing well.”

Oh great, like we need more instant gratification in U.S. society. Sheesh. Short-term thinking and incentives… I guess the students will be prepared for the “real world.” But this isn't the “Lean world” — a world (small as it may be) that focuses on the long-term, as Dr. Deming also taught (“constancy of purpose.”)

The “Con” student shows a lot of wisdom for her 14 years. She calls it a “bribe” and asks:

“Are Chicago public schools really doing so poorly that they literally have to beg kids to get good grades by offering to pay them? Apparently.”

Ha — she gets it. She continues:

“By paying students for good grades, schools and parents are teaching students the wrong reason for doing well in school. I know plenty of people, including me, who don't need an incentive to do well in school.”

The comments section is even better. The first commenter writes:

“I disagree with students receiving pay for good grades. This sort of reward system sets a student up for failure in life. When a student becomes motivated by external rewards (ie money) they start to always expect it. In real life, this doesn't always happen. Employees get pay cuts because of budget issues. I guess that means they shouldn't do a good job because they aren't getting rewarded for it?”

Bingo. That person understands the psychology of how people will cheat to make their incentive (something that happens in the working world):

“Also, would getting paid for good grades encourage students to cheat just so they will have spending money?”

If the grade is the goal, not the learning, all sorts of bad things might happen. What about some unethical teacher who gives an unearned A to a student if the student kicks back half of the incentive? I'm not saying ALL teachers would do that, but I would bet it has happened at least once. The pressure for grade inflation (if anything, from pharents) will be there, one way or another, because now you're “costing me money” if you give a B or a C for a class.

The 2nd commenter links to an article that highlights all of the research that shows that “pay for grades” doesn't work. The article also points out how widespread and popular these misguided programs are, unfortunately.

There's just too many dysfunctions introduced for this “pay for grades” to be a net positive.

Is this happening in other schools in your part of the country (or world)? What do you think of this practice??

Subscribe via RSS | Lean Blog Main Page | Podcast | Twitter @MarkGraban

Please check out my main blog page at www.leanblog.org

The RSS feed content you are reading is copyrighted by the author, Mark Graban.

, , , on the author's copyright.

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleHyundai has a "Lean CEO"
Next articleLeanBlog Podcast #54 – Dr. John Toussaint, Lean at ThedaCare
Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Hmmmm… Interesting topic and views. Overall I agree that to be intrinsically motivated is better than extrincisally motivated, but we’ve got to acknowledge that each individual is different. Some are EXtrinsically motivated – children as well as adults. No, the Chicago School system should NOT be giving kids money for better grades – but maybe there is nothing wrong with a parent, at his/her own choice, rewarding a child who isn’t intrinsically motivated. If anyone reading this has children, you might understand this. For example, have you ever seen a child motivated by extracurricular activities? In other words, perform well enough in school or your don’t participate? That’s not intrinsic motivation, but it works. I know because it worked on me, personally. All kids are different. What works with one may not work with another. I think where we get into trouble is with the “one size fits all” mentality. We’ve got to face up to the fact that there are plenty of jobs/careers in our society that are not intrinsically rewarding and that at least some of the people holding them do so for the monetary (one form of extrinsic) rewards. Until we have a perfect world we’ve got to acknowledge that everyone is different and that motivation, be it intrinsic or extrinsic, will vary.

  2. Here’s a link to a similar program in Georgia. Newt and his daughter talked about it on “Huckabee” yesterday on Fox News. My guess is you’ll hear more about it in the news. Maybe getting the kids in the classroom this way can kick-start the “intrinsic motivation” to learn. I’m willing to give it a try. If my teenager is motivated by natural intrinsic rewards, he keeps it very well hidden.

  3. The intrinsic/extrinsic thing isn’t as simplistic as you make it out to be.

    The intrinsic rewards of education as a means of self-betterment just aren’t there for a lot of kids- in fact, the opposite is the case where performing poorly can lead to greater peer acceptance. It’s not a vast amount of money that people are getting- it certainly could work out to a very low hourly rate. However, it is tying something to performance beyond a grand abstraction of a GPA and college admission that is beyond the immediate problems facing many students. In a sense, money is the motivation for much of education- we go to school to get more valuable jobs. It makes great behavioral sense to move some of that reward a little closer in time to the activity that is deserving of reward.

    I wouldn’t pay anything for a C though!

  4. I have to agree that each individual is unique. While we like to believe that Maslow was right, I’ve never been fully convinced. Different people respond to situations differently. It is what makes each of us unique. It is a manager’s job as a leader to learn how to effectively motivate his/her employees.

    I remember a successful coach when I was in high school. The single greatest lesson I learned from him was how to judge people and motivate them – not simply winning or losing. To believe that all people desire intrinsic rewards is similar to saying all people learn the same way…

  5. Roland Fryer was on the Colbert Report the other night talking about his idea.

    It sounds even worse when he talks about it.

    – Ryan

  6. Good op-ed from Alfie Kohn in USA Today recently:


    Scroll down to #11 in his list of pieces.

    “* Children (and learning) have intrinsic value; they’re not just means to economic ends, such as boosting the “competitiveness” of U.S. corporations.”

    His book “Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes” looks like a good read.


  7. More of a bad idea? Saw this on Fox News this morning:


    Sounds good on the surface, but more of the same problems? The one college kid who is getting paid for grades said something like, “In HS, you want good grades to get into college, but what’s the motivation in college?”

    Um, learning? Life?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.