I’m intrigued but ambivalent about a proposal currently…

I’m intrigued, but ambivalent, about a proposal currently being floated by a North Carolina Republican state senator: he wants the state to pay grade-school students cash rewards (as much as $1000 per year) for good grades.

It’s a reach beyond rewards like gold stars and pizza parties. But dangling cash rewards could be the cheapest and most effective motivator to raise test scores and lower dropout rates, said Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, who is proposing the idea in legislation awaiting a committee hearing. If the money is paid to parents, that could get them more involved in helping their children succeed, he said.

Setting aside my libertarian objections for a moment, I see both promise and peril in this idea. On the positive side, it could be a good motivator for kids who lack motivation (though not, probably, for kids younger than middle-school age, who don’t really grasp the value of money). If one is to throw more money at the school system, this strikes me as potentially a more effective way to do so than what we’re doing now. It would also provide at least an approximate simulation of the real world, where hard work and competence result in material rewards.

On the other hand, though, it would be artificially indiscriminate, rewarding all excellence equally irrespective of the actual value of the skills learned. More worrisome to me are the practical aspects: if the money were paid to parents, what would guarantee that any of it would actually get to the kids? Indeed, even if it were paid directly to the kids, I’m not sure the parents wouldn’t get their hands on it; at any rate, they’d certainly want to limit how their kids can use it. One solution would be to escrow the money, or pay it into an untouchable college fund, but that would be no motivation for a ten-year-old.

It’s all a moot point, I’m sure; I see zero likelihood that this proposal will actually be enacted, particularly in a time of severe budget shortfalls. But it’s got me thinking: should I, as a parent, be using avarice as a motivator? In the past we’ve tended to reward Laura modestly for good report cards, but not predictably or consistently. Should we instead set a fixed price for As, Bs, and Cs, so she would know from day one what good grades are worth? Love of learning for its own sake is great, but I’m not sure one can rely on it.

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